BEIJING — In the chaotic hours after Lhasa erupted March 14, Tibetans rampaged through the city’s old quarter, waving steel scabbards and burning or looting Chinese shops. Clothes, souvenirs and other tourist trinkets were dumped outside and set afire as thick gray smoke darkened the midday sky. Tibetan fury, uncorked, boiled over.
Foreigners and Lhasa residents who witnessed the violence were stunned by what they saw, and by what they did not see: the police. Riot police officers fled after an initial skirmish and then were often nowhere to be found. Some Chinese shopkeepers begged for protection.
“The whole day I didn’t see a single police officer or soldier,” said an American woman who spent hours navigating the riot scene. “The Tibetans were just running free.”
Lhasa is now occupied by thousands of paramilitary police officers and troops of the People’s Liberation Army. But witnesses say that for almost 24 hours, the paramilitary police seemed unexpectedly paralyzed or unprepared, despite days of rising tensions with Tibetan monks.
The absence of police officers emboldened the Tibetan crowds, which terrorized Chinese residents, toppled fire trucks and hurled stones into Chinese-owned shops. In turn, escalating violence touched off a sweeping crackdown and provided fodder for a propaganda-fueled nationalist backlash against Tibetans across the rest of China that is still under way.
“I really am surprised at the speed with which these things got out of control,” said Murray Scot Tanner, a China analyst with a specialty in policing. “This place, this time, should not have surprised them. This is one of the key cities in the country that they have tried to keep a lid on for two decades.”
What happened? Analysts wonder if the authorities, possibly fearing the public relations ramifications of a confrontation before the Beijing Olympics in August, told the police to avoid engaging protesters without high-level approval.
Timing also may have contributed to indecision; Tibet’s hard-line Communist Party boss, Zhang Qingli, and other top officials were attending the National People’s Congress in Beijing when the violence erupted.
The full explanation could take years to emerge from China’s secretive Communist Party hierarchy. But the Lhasa unrest, not entirely unlike the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, may be remembered as much for poor police work — faulty crowd control and political indecision followed by a large-scale response — as for the underlying grievances of protesters.
Lhasa now has created far more than a public relations problem for Beijing. It has unleashed widespread Tibetan resentment over Chinese rule. Antigovernment demonstrations have spread to Tibetan areas of western China. Military convoys and trucks of paramilitary police officers are streaming westward to quell the protests.
International leaders are alarmed at the continuing violence and have called on China to exercise restraint. But domestic opinion is inflamed with nationalist anger as state television is repeatedly showing images of Tibetans rioting in those early, unfettered hours.
“Our government should take a bloody suppression on these separatists!” blared one posting among the legion of enraged postings on Chinese Internet chat rooms. “We cannot hesitate or be too merciful, even at the cost of giving up the Olympics.”
The police hesitation did not last long. The crackdown began within 24 hours, on March 15. Witnesses described hearing the thud of tear gas projectiles and the crackle of gunshots as paramilitary police officers took control of the riot area. By March 16, the paramilitary police were searching Tibetan neighborhoods and seizing suspects. One foreigner saw four Tibetan men beaten so savagely that the police sprinkled white powder on the ground to cover the blood.
Lhasa’s death toll remains in sharp dispute. The Chinese authorities say 22 people died, including a police officer killed by a mob and shopkeepers who burned to death in the violence. The authorities also claim security forces did not carry lethal weapons or fire a shot. But the Tibetan government-in-exile, in Dharamsala, India, said at least 99 Tibetans have died in Lhasa during the crackdown. Foreign journalists are now forbidden to enter Tibet. But interviews with more than 20 witnesses show Lhasa was boiling with Tibetan resentment even as authorities believed they had the situation under control. Protests broke out at three monasteries beginning March 10, the anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, which forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India. The police arrested more than 60 monks and confined the rest in their monasteries. Tibetans say the police also beat monks during peaceful demonstrations.
James Miles, a Beijing-based reporter for The Economist magazine, had obtained approval from authorities for a reporting trip to Lhasa before the demonstrations. When the protests started, Mr. Miles wondered if he would be notified that his trip had been canceled. But no call came. He arrived March 12, and on March 13 officials took him to dinner, signaling their confidence by making no attempt to hide the recent demonstrations.
“I was assured that the situation in Lhasa was stable,” Mr. Miles recalled.
But the next day, March 14, would prove otherwise. At Ramoche Temple, monks left the monastery about midday to protest and were immediately met by police officers. Unlike the other monasteries, Ramoche is in the heart of Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter, so the confrontation attracted a large crowd.
Unconfirmed reports about the earlier protests had been swirling among Tibetans for days, according to several people, including that monks and Buddhist nuns had been killed. Many Tibetans were angry when they saw the police clash with the Ramoche monks. Quickly, the crowd attacked the police.
Witnesses say police reinforcements who arrived with shields and riot gear were overwhelmed. “Almost immediately they were rushed by a massive group of Tibetans,” one witness said. Police officers fled, and a mob of Tibetans poured out of the old quarter onto Beijing Road, a large commercial street. A riot had begun.
Angry Tibetans attacked a branch of the Bank of China and burned it to a blackened husk. Photos and video images show Tibetans smashing Chinese shops with stones and setting them on fire. Witnesses described Tibetans attacking Chinese on bicycles and throwing rocks at taxis driven by Chinese. Later, crowds also burned shops owned by Muslims.
“This wasn’t organized, but it was very clear that they wanted the Chinese out,” said the American woman who witnessed the riots and asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. She said Tibetan grievances exploded in anger. Crowds tied ceremonial silk scarves across the threshold of Tibetan shops to indicate they should not be damaged.
Mr. Miles, the journalist, found himself the only Western reporter on the scene. He spent the next several hours carefully walking around the old Tibetan quarter as rioters burned buildings and overturned cars. “I was looking around expecting an immediate, rapid response,” he said. “But nothing happened. I kept asking people, ‘Where are the police?’ ”
Protests are common in China and clashes can occur between demonstrators and police officers. Beginning in the early 1980s China created a paramilitary force, known as the People’s Armed Police, to deal with domestic unrest and other crises. Mr. Tanner, the specialist in Chinese policing, said the People’s Armed Police had developed tactics over the years to defuse protests without resorting to violent crackdowns. But riots of this scale are rare, and if violence erupts, policy dictates a firm response, Mr. Tanner said.
“There is no suggestion that they are supposed to sit back and let a riot burn itself out,” he said.
Tibetans also say the security forces were unusually passive. One monk reached by telephone said other monks noticed that several officers were more interested in shooting video of the violence than stopping it. “They were just watching,” the monk said. “They tried to make some videos and use their cameras to take some photos.”
Ultimately, the man responsible for public order in Lhasa is Mr. Zhang, Tibet’s party chief. Mr. Zhang is a protégé of President Hu Jintao, whose own political career took flight after he crushed the last major rebellion in Tibet in 1989.
According to one biographer, Mr. Hu actually made himself unavailable during the 1989 riots when the paramilitary police needed guidance on whether to crack down. The police did so and Mr. Hu got credit for keeping order, but he also assured himself deniability if the crackdown had failed, the biographer wrote.
Mr. Zhang also has an excuse; he was at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. When the violence started, Mr. Zhang had just completed a two-hour online discussion about China’s Supreme Court, according to a government Web site. It is unclear when Mr. Zhang was told of the violence, or if he made the final decision on how to respond.
But that decision became clear on March 15, the day after the riots. During the riots, the police had been armed with shields and batons, several witnesses said. But overnight, the People’s Armed Police had encircled the riot areas. Armed vehicles also were in position. By the afternoon, witnesses saw small teams of paramilitary officers with high-powered weapons moving into the old quarter. Mr. Zhang would later declare “a bitter struggle of blood and fire against the Dalai clique, a struggle of life and death.”
The Chinese authorities have also confirmed that army troops had arrived in Lhasa by March 15, saying their role was limited to traffic control and securing military property. But many people question if some of those troops were involved in the crackdown. Several armored vehicles had their license plates removed or covered in white paper.
Mr. Miles noticed that many of the People’s Armed Police officers actually appeared to be wearing irregular uniforms. One military analyst who studied photographs of the scene concluded that some armored vehicles belonged to an elite military unit. Witnesses reported hearing the sounds of gunshots throughout that Saturday afternoon.
The crackdown was only one part of the new strategy. The Chinese news media initially had not been allowed to cover the Lhasa violence. But by March 15,, that had changed. There, broadcast on state television, was video of Tibetans raging through Lhasa.