China gets ready for unrest as torch makes way to Tibet

by Mei Fong
Sue Feng contributed to this article

China plans to take its Olympic torch relay through Tibet on Saturday, a move that could reignite controversy over both the Games and the country's restive western territory.

The decision has been shrouded in secrecy, with organizers abruptly switching dates. Originally, the torch was scheduled to arrive in Lhasa Thursday.

The torch relay returned to mainland China on May 4 after chaotic runs through foreign cities, and it is now moving into politically sensitive areas and encountering unanticipated problems. The Olympic festivities are jarring with festering ethnic tensions in China's western territories of Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as the anguish caused by the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 69,000 people and left millions homeless.

As a result, Chinese authorities -- who refused to alter the torch route despite the clamor of protesters in Paris, London and San Francisco -- have been forced to modify the route and tone down festivities on their home ground.

Pro-Tibetan independence protesters, who object to Chinese rule, say there will likely be protests against the torch in Tibet's capital, despite the heavy security that has enveloped the city since unrest erupted there in March. A crackdown followed the riot, which killed 18 civilians and one police officer and injured hundreds of others, according to the Xinhua news agency. The riot also destroyed the businesses of Han Chinese residents and led to the arrest of hundreds of Tibetans across China.

"At this time, Tibet is like a big prison," said Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, "but for China to parade this torch of tyranny is just insult to injury."

Chinese officials maintain that Tibet has always been a part of China and the protests are the work of a minority of people. "I don't doubt they will create trouble during the torch relay in Tibet," Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Tibet regional government, told reporters in April, but "we will fully prepare for it, and the Olympic torch relay in Tibet will be a complete success."

Map of China revised torch relay

Several news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, were denied permission to cover the Lhasa leg of the relay. Officials from the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, or Bocog, say the Tibetan province requires special arrangements in terms of media coverage and referred queries to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Council Information Office. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred queries back to Bocog. Calls to the State Council weren't answered.

Few foreign journalists and independent observers have been allowed in Tibet since April. Overseas Tibetan groups say authorities have cut off electricity and food supplies to several major monasteries, traditionally hubs of local activism.

The International Olympic Committee has said it can't interfere with a host country's decisions but signaled in an internal memo sent in April its concern over possible violence that might accompany the torch relay in China.

The relay was suspended from May 19 to May 21 during a national three-day mourning period for quake victims. When it resumed, much of the fanfare was played down, with routes traversing areas such as university or stadium grounds, where crowd access can be limited easily. Security also appeared tighter in contrast with when the torch first entered Chinese territory.

Sichuan will be the last leg of the relay before the torch arrives in Beijing on Aug. 6, two days before the Olympics opening ceremony.

Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal

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