A Journalists’ Junket to Lhasa: Get On the Bus

Geoffrey York – The Globe and Mail

Copyright The Globe and Mail
June 22, 2008
LHASA – It was the loud man with the megaphone, herding us relentlessly onto the buses, who symbolized the worst of our escorted tour of Tibet.
The official press tour is one of the rituals of Communist China, as time-honored as the ceremony to raise the Chinese flag at Tiananmen Square every morning. It’s far from the ideal way to gather news.
But with Tibet still tightly sealed off from the outside world, I accepted an invitation to join a government-sponsored press tour to Lhasa this weekend, realizing it was the only way to get even a limited glimpse into this locked-down region.
It was only the second time that foreign journalists have been permitted to enter Tibet since the wave of sometimes-bloody protests that began on March 10, so I was keen to get a first-hand look into the forbidden territory.
But an official press tour can be a humiliating experience. Our itinerary was filled with weirdly irrelevant events, including a handicrafts exhibition, a visit to a tourist village, and a press conference to announce a performance of traditional dance. The man with the megaphone was constantly barking at us, hectoring us to move faster. The schedule was packed with activity from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., to keep us busy and distracted from the real news.
Every moment was pre-programmed. To ensure that we didn’t miss anything, we were given unsolicited wake-up calls at 6:15 a.m., urging us out of bed and into the program.
We were lodged in a government hotel, far from the historic centre of Lhasa, to make it even harder for us to have any independent contact with monks or other malcontents.
At the allocated time for dinner on Friday, I managed to slip away from the hotel and hail a taxi to the old town, where I was able to see the massive security presence, including thousands of paramilitary police in camouflage uniforms, in advance of the Olympic torch relay the next day. There were paramilitary troops and regular police on every corner.
A few other journalists also slipped away from the hotel. The next day, we were reprimanded by a government minder, who claimed to be worried about our personal safety. “This is Lhasa,” she warned ominously. “You could get lost, you could be detained. It could happen anywhere, particularly Lhasa. When you’re out, we’re really concerned. Anything could happen.”
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