ZHUONI, China (Reuters) - Across China’s mountainous west, armed troops watch over the Tibetan monasteries and towns that have emerged as hotbeds of protest kindled by traditions of defiance and newer economic grievances.
More than the Tibet Autonomous Region itself, where the upsurge of anti-Chinese protests and riots erupted last month, the historically Tibetan parts of neighbouring provinces have defied efforts to smother unrest with troop convoys, roadblocks and patrols, and warnings of harsh punishment to lawbreakers.
In Zhuoni, a county in the northwest province of Gansu, protesters in mid-March torched a school, set up their own roadblock and trashed officials’ cars, residents said.
A recent trip along its tightly guarded roads showed the protests had stopped. Smashed windows of the local police offices and Chinese-owned shops had been quickly repaired, and traders were returning to dusty streets.
But Tibetans here and across south Gansu spoke of anger with the government campaign against the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, and with economic shifts they said favored Han Chinese migrants and Hui Muslim merchants in nearby towns.
“There are more and more Han here, so we can’t develop,” said Tsairang, a herder and farmer. He rejected the government’s claim that the Dalai Lama’s supporters orchestrated the violence.
“It wasn’t the Dalai Lama. He’s like a member of our family who isn’t allowed to come home. You can’t blame him.”
Southern Gangsu and nearby Sichuan and Qinghai provinces have seen outbursts of anti-Chinese protests since mid-March.
Last week, Tibetans in Sichuan clashed with police, leaving eight people dead, according to groups abroad that support Tibetan independence. Throughout southern Gansu in March, 94 people were injured in unrest, which did $32.6 million of economic damage, the Xinhua news agency said.
The traditions of Buddhist faith and political defiance that bond these areas to the Dalai Lama and his hopes, as well as economic grievances, are likely to keep these areas as terrain for conflict.
“Typically, it’s these areas that have been at the forefront of resistance to Chinese policies,” said Andrew Fischer of the London School of Economics, who has closely studied the province borderlands sometimes called collectively “Eastern Tibet.”
“They’re extremely resilient. Eastern Tibet has generally been far more resilient than Lhasa, and that seems to be reflected in the pattern of protests.”
The ethnic Tibetan lands of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces vary enormously from parts long accommodated to Han Chinese culture to others where it can be difficult finding locals who speak much Mandarin.
In north Sichuan, “Baima” Tibetans have long practiced intense farming and raising pigs, and absorbing much of the culture of nearby Han Chinese.
In Xiangsujia Village, residents decorated their homes with posters of Mao Zedong and other Communist Party heroes, and followed local spirits, not Buddhism.
“We’ve learning to live with Han Chinese. That’s natural isn’t it?” said Anzhu, braiding her hair by a fire.
“We all learn Chinese now. There’s no use learning Tibetan. It can’t get you a job, not even as a school teacher.”
But climbing higher into the mountains of Sichuan and Gansu, or Kham and Amdo as locals call the regions, goats and vegetable plots give way to yaks, wheat and barley fields and the distinctive stone or mud-and-straw homes of highland Tibet.
These more isolated areas have long nursed defiance to outside rule, especially towards modern times policies from Beijing.
In trading outpost and monastery towns such as Litang and Aba in Sichuan, herders favor cowboy hats and motorbikes decorated in traditional Tibetan designs and religious motifs.
Dimtsenema, a medical herb trader from Aba, said it was no surprise that his home region has seen such torrid clashes.
“Among Tibetans, people here are famous for their bravery,” he said during a brief telephone conversation with Reuters. Aba is cut off to foreign reporters.
“They call us ‘kangba’ men. That means we are tougher here than anywhere else. We have always been the first ones to fight and the last ones to stop.”
Monks in monasteries in these parts have also nurtured a strong devotion to the Dalai Lama, who Beijing condemns as a traitorous “separatist.”
In earlier trips through Sichuan, monks showed pictures of him kept under their crimson robes and some monasteries kept private rooms devoted to him.
Near the Labrang monastery in Xiahe, Gansu — one of the biggest centers of the Dalai Lama’s Gelukpa branch of Buddhism — one monk spoke briefly and fearfully about the exiled monk.
“We can’t speak of him now. I can’t believe he would want that,” he said of the deadly March 14 riot in Lhasa that Beijing says the Dalai’s “clique” engineered.
Xiahe was under heavy armed guard after thousands of Tibetan’s protested there in mid-March, and the monk asked that his name not be used.
“There is so much unhappiness here, but the reasons are complicated, not him, one man.”
In the conflict that climaxed in the Dalai Lama fleeing to India in 1959, monks from the provinces next to Tibet often led resistance to Chinese Communist rule and later played a big role in exile activism, said Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Those bonds have survived decades of Chinese efforts to weaken the influence of the Dalai Lama, who was born in eastern Qinghai province, the outer edge of Tibetan tradition.
“I’m fairly confident that over the years those exiled figures have been maintaining building up a network of support in the local monasteries,” said Sautman.
“In certain areas, the religious policies have been much more lenient than Tibet in the past, allowing more contacts.”
But while the monk-inspired protests used political slogans urging Tibetan independence and the return of the Dalai Lama, overlapping riots in these areas have often attacked symbols of economic change, especially ethnic Chinese-owned shops.
Until the protests, China’s efforts to bring development to these western areas appeared to have blunted some discontent, and Tibetans are certainly not the only people enduring hardship.
In the arid hills of Gansu, Han Chinese and Hui Muslim villages who, religion apart, resemble Han Chinese, appeared as poor as Tibetan ones.
By contrast, some Tibetans in western Sichuan and elsewhere have also grown richer through tourism, building and traditional Tibetan medical herbs now popular with Chinese people.
But Tibetans said expanding tourism and state-driven investments favored skilled migrants and Hui Muslim businessmen rather than poorly educated herders.
“The men who can’t read or write Chinese, they see others making money, driving cars, and that makes them angry. They think they deserve some of it,” said Kaili, a Tibetan woman in Zhuoni.
“I think that was the reason the protest march got violent.”
Editing by Megan Goldin