Security apparatus taken by surprise

Mark Magnier in Xiahe, China
March 21, 2008

A QUESTION the Chinese Communist Party no doubt will be asking itself for years to come is how its vast security apparatus could stumble so badly to allow the situation in ethnically Tibetan regions of China to get so out of control.

Although the budgets and staffing levels of China's police and intelligence agencies are a state secret, it is clear they are among the largest in the world, with roots that penetrate deep into neighbourhoods, companies and even monasteries.

Yet a ground-level view I received of the unrest and crackdown at Xiahe in Gansu province last week offered a look at how flat-footed the vaunted security machine could be - at least in this one little corner - despite its size, budget and ability to act without warrants or other democratic niceties.

When the first signs of unrest hit on Friday, the police were caught unaware. They rallied later that day but apparently under-estimated the people's willingness to protect the monks. Having put out a small skirmish, the police seemed taken by surprise the next day when the protesters came back far stronger. And many of the police tactics appeared to inflame passions rather than calm the situation.

About 10am Saturday, hundreds of monks emerged from the sprawling Labrang Monastery, attracting attention from pilgrims in traditional clothing.

Accounts differ on who made the first provocative move. At any rate, by some accounts, about 20 police fired live rounds, roughed up protesters and started making arrests.

The police thought they had beaten back the challenge, but by the early afternoon as many as 10,000 protesters appeared again, marching from a bridge at the centre of town. They raised the Tibetan flag at a school and attacked more buildings, resulting at some point in four deaths and scores of arrests.

Within hours, roadblocks were firmly in place much further down the valley, the police at every juncture were now on their toes and there were no side roads on which to detour.

Los Angeles Times