After years of promises to open access to Tibet, Chinese officials suggested Monday that overseas reporters might be allowed to visit the highly restricted region as authorities plan events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region this year.
Two years after Communists won control of China in 1949, Mao Tse-tung’s troops marched into Tibet. Since then, Beijing has firmly controlled the area -- despite designating it as an autonomous region in 1965 – and has spent billions of dollars trying to integrate the sparsely populated expanse, which accounts for more than a quarter of China's landmass.
For decades, the region has witnessed a cycle of uprisings and crackdowns, including serious riots in 2008. Some in China claimed that foreign media outlets were biased in their coverage of the riots; protests were held outside several offices of U.S. media organizations, including the office of CNN in Los Angeles.
Chinese authorities barred foreign journalists from visiting the region after that March 2008 violence. Since then, firsthand coverage of Tibet in the Western media has become extremely rare, though Western tourists are allowed to visit. Western reporters based in China have found that visiting Tibet can be as difficult as trying to enter North Korea.
“Large parts of Chinese territory remain officially or effectively out of bounds for foreign correspondents,” the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in a report this year. “The 2008 rules prevent foreign reporters from visiting the Tibet Autonomous Region without prior permission from the regional government. Such permission has only rarely been granted in recent years.”
But speaking Monday on the sidelines of the Chinese National People’s Congress in Beijing, a senior official from Tibet claimed that there was no ban on foreign journalists traveling to the region.
“To be honest, we don’t have a policy in Tibet that dictates those who can come and those who cannot come,” Padma Choling, chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region, said during a question-and-answer session with the media after his panel held an open group meeting.
“Especially, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region,” he said. “We will hold major events to demonstrate the results of development and growth of the area since then. We welcome all of you to come.”
Ethnic Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region and neighboring areas of Sichuan and Gansu provinces have engaged in self-immolation as a form of protest against Chinese rule in recent years. According to figures compiled by the Tibetan activist and writer Woeser, 135 Tibetans have attempted to set themselves on fire between February 2009 and December 2014, and 119 of them have died.
The advocacy group Free Tibet reported that a woman in her 40s set herself on fire in eastern Tibet and died Friday; no independent confirmation was possible.
The riots and self-immolations have apparently contributed to authorities’ reluctance to allow foreign reporters to visit Tibet and interview locals. Last year, an L.A. Times correspondent submitted an application to visit the region, and it took the local propaganda office in Tibet more than a month to respond, declining the request without specific reasons.
The autonomous region’s 50th anniversary will be marked in September, and Choling said China has much to be proud of.
“The economic development and the safety of ordinary people in Tibet has never been better in history,” he said. “The sense of happiness and safety among Tibetans is at its best.”
Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.