Since Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet in 1950 and Beijing eventually occupied this poorly defended Himalayan country in 1951, China’s sensitivity over any mention of “Tibet” at international forums has increased by the day. In fact, it is Beijing’s schizophrenic outburst over Tibet and its exiled ruler Dalai Lama—and not the utterly muted Tibet support movement—that keeps the issue sizzling in the international mindscape. Last weekend, Beijing’s reaction to a fire in Tibet’s holiest temple, Jokhang in Lhasa, had the same effect.

China’s Gestapo like internet governance machinery demonstrated extraordinary alacrity and aggression in blocking all news about the fire and erasing every single photo of the temple uploaded by curious Tibetan and Chinese visitors. Statistically speaking, China’s reaction drew the attention of the world community much more towards China’s colonial strangulation of Tibet, than the fire itself, which, Beijing claimed, was brought under control within hours.

Having seen the long-winding, dingy and dark corridors that connect the innumerable temples and altar rooms of the 1,300-year-old Buddhist temple complex of Jokhang, this author can imagine how devastating a fire at that place can prove to be, if not handled with speed by a huge posse of trained fire fighters. Hundreds of thousands of butter-lamps flickering 24×7 in these rooms and droves of enthusiastic devotees topping up each lamp with the Indian Dalda and Rath vegetable oils imported through Nepal, can be an enthralling experience to watch.

A view of Lhasa in a photograph taken by the author.

Besides being the holiest of all holy places in Buddhist Tibet, Jokhang was also witness to many political activities, right from the time when 67 years ago, the Chinese PLA soldiers marched into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Holding huge portraits of Chairman Mao, the PLA soldiers, in a noisy procession, wound their way to the huge ground at the Potala palace through Barkhor, the sacred path that circumscribes Jokhang.

It was at the time that Beijing’s communist masters promised their new Tibetan subjects that “not a needle would be taken from Tibetans by PLA without paying for it”. The promise was made in their much boasted “17-Point Agreement” of accession of Tibet into “motherland” China. But even before the ink had dried on the “agreement”, angry Tibetans started spitting on Chinese soldiers in Barkhor as prices of staple food sky-rocketed due to demands from a huge and hungry Chinese army present in Tibet.

In 1959, when an open public uprising burst in the face of this uninvited army, the streets around Jokhang witnessed a bloodbath, with Chinese machineguns killing nearly 80,000 Tibetans, as per the estimates of a UN commission of international jurists. It was again in Barkhor in early 1989 that Comrade Hu Jintao, the Communist Party Secretary for Tibet, ordered PLA tanks to crush a sudden uprising by Tibetans. Emboldened by the success of Hu Jintao’s “Lhasa model”, Beijing applied the same tactics three months later at the Tienanmen Square to crush the uprising by Chinese youths against communist rule.

In later years too Jokhang witnessed many demonstrations against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The most talked about was the one in March 2008, when a group of Beijing-based foreign media persons was taken to Jokhang to show Tibet’s progress and the Tibetans’ “love” for Chinese rule. However, suddenly a group of Tibetan monks and nuns appeared inside Jokhang and started complaining to the journalists against China.

In the past few decades, Chinese propaganda over Tibet has been quite aggressive at the international level. In dozens of instances in the post occupation years, Beijing bullied and forced many vulnerable governments and organisations to follow its diktat on matters of Tibet and Dalai Lama. This tendency gained further momentum once communist China became a member of the civilised world community and subsequently gathered enviable economic and military muscles. It’s a different matter that in most cases of Chinese tantrums and bullying, Beijing lost its face, while support rose for the Dalai Lama and Tibet.

For example, China’s outburst over pro-Tibet marchers joining the Olympic torch relay in various countries, ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, got far more publicity internationally than all the Chinese commercial advertising and public relations exercise put together for the Olympics. 

It has become an established practice for Beijing to issue threats and browbeat countries that the Dalai Lama plans to visit. On 20 February 2010, President Barack Obama hosted the Dalai Lama in the residential parts of White House so as not to anger the Chinese. In order to prevent the press from interacting with the Tibetan leader, the US President made the Dalai Lama walk back to his waiting car through the area where White House laundry is done, the photos of which even became public.

Earlier in May 2001, China became the butt of international ridicule when the government run China Children Publishing House published the Chinese edition of the comic book, Tintin in Tibet (1958) as Tintin In Chinese Tibet. This angered Tintin creator Hergé’s widow, Fanny Rodwell so much that she refused to attend the launch in Beijing.

In February 2014, Beijing used its business and political muscle on Spain’s government to save five prominent Chinese leaders from arrest and international humiliation. They were on the verge of being sentenced for their war crimes against humanity in Tibet. A group of Tibet supporters in Spain successfully invoked a special provision of the Spanish Constitution, which allowed trials against anyone across the world for involvement in crimes against humanity. There was high possibility that the verdict would have gone against the following Chinese leaders: Hu Jintao, Li Peng and Jiang Zemin. Once delivered, this judgement would have made the Interpol arrest these Chinese leaders if they were to travel to any country outside of China. But the Spanish government gave in to Chinese bullying on the eve of the Supreme Court verdict. In a specially called session of “Congress of Deputies”, in the Lower House of Spanish Parliament, a new law was passed, which was to be applied retroactively in order to limit the universal jurisdictions of the earlier law on crimes against humanity.

Yet another incident in the last decade proved how even a powerful Russia had to wilt under China’s brute pressure. The Russian government barred the Dalai Lama from stopping over in Russia, on his way to Mongolia by flight. More recently, for the third successive time, Beijing arm-twisted the South African government to deny visa to Dalai Lama who was invited to participate in a summit of Nobel Peace laureates in Cape Town on 2 October 2014, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. However, in demonstration of their solidarity with the Dalai Lama and condemnation of the South African government, the Nobel laureates scrapped the summit.

Over the years, Beijing has developed a tendency to explode into anger and rage on anything related to Tibet or its deposed ruler, the Dalai Lama. But most of these outbursts end up highlighting the Chinese occupation of Tibet and gives much larger publicity to the Dalai Lama than what all freedom loving Tibetans or Tibet support groups across the world, put together, could have generated. The incident of the fire at Jokhang was no different.

Vijay Kranti is a senior journalist and a renowned Tibetologist. He has travelled extensively inside Tibet on photo expeditions.