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In Tibetan areas the government mixes control with tolerance

TROUPES of Tibetan dancers twirled long pieces of silk. Men in red-tasselled hats brandished swords. Horses in fine saddles stormed around the stadium. Last week the Gesar cultural festival opened in Yushu in the western province of Qinghai. Locals gathered for the three-day celebration of equine prowess, yak-racing and Tibetan song and dance. It is just one of many such festivals held on the Tibetan plateau in the summer months.

It would be easy to paint recent changes to such festivities as an indication of repression of Tibetan culture. The opening ceremony of the Gesar event, once free to all, is now ticketed, and many seats are reserved for government officials. Police lined the perimeter fence; during one performance 13 uniformed men in protective vests, masks and helmets walked across the field. In a rare sign of dissent, only a few of the crowd outside the officials’ section stood for the Chinese national anthem.

But the story is more subtle: on this part of the plateau, outside Tibet proper, China’s government maintains stability by an artful balance of repression and tolerance. It allows freedom in some spheres to prevent simmering anxieties about the future of Tibetan culture and Buddhism from boiling over.

That contrasts with the official Tibetan autonomous region, home to less than half of China’s 6.3m Tibetans, where several anti-Chinese riots erupted in 2008. There, a system of street-level surveillance known as the “grid” operates, in which community members gather information for officials. Groups of five to ten households sign contracts agreeing not to make trouble. In Lhasa people may be imprisoned for carrying or displaying images of the Dalai Lama; elsewhere on the plateau most are merely reprimanded.

The exact level of control in Qinghai is unclear. Some locals complained that July’s event was smaller than previous ones because the government is “afraid” of large gatherings of Tibetans. Last year a Tibetan monk died after setting himself on fire in Yushu just weeks before the festival: since 2011 more than 140 Tibetans have protested against Chinese rule in the same desperate way. Yet Yushu’s festivals may simply be losing out to events elsewhere: visitors to the Tibetan autonomous region, which has several similar celebrations, increased fivefold from 2007 to 2015.

China’s government argues that such festivals demonstrate the protection and development of Tibetan culture. They are certainly not mere propaganda aimed at outsiders: many townsfolk came to the Gesar festival and the mood was relaxed. On the second day security was looser and Tibetans pitched coloured tents and picnicked on the Batang grasslands south of the city. In the evening the police allowed a bonfire—open flames in a place where people set themselves alight in anger—and the crowd joined the traditional Tibetan dance around it. Even the policemen danced.

In Tibetan parts of neighbouring Sichuan province, where nearly a third of those who have burnt themselves are from, the picture is again less happy. At the same time as the horse festival in Yushu, buildings were being destroyed in Sichuan province at Larung Gar, one of the world’s centres of Tibetan Buddhist learning, according to campaign groups outside China, and thousands of monks and nuns were evicted. Chinese officials claim that work is being done to upgrade living conditions.

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