A photo that seems to show Chinese paramilitary forces carrying monks’ robes provides conclusive evidence, those spreading it through e-mail claim, that the Chinese staged Tibet riots last month to justify a government crackdown.
But the photo, widely distributed via the Internet, appears likely to be a 7-year-old image taken during a film shoot.
“In this politically charged environment, people throw any kind of thing out there without checking,” said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. “It’s just part of the crazy Internet world.”
Violence broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and surrounding areas March 14-16, days after the start of massive demonstrations marking the anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. Chinese officials say 22 people died in the riots; representatives of Tibetan exile groups say several times that number were killed.
A Chinese court Tuesday sentenced 30 people, including six Buddhist monks, to jail terms ranging from three years to life for their participation in the protests, the Associated Press reported.
Also Tuesday, the official New China News Agency reported that a policeman was shot to death Monday while attempting to capture an alleged riot leader in an ethnic Tibetan area of Qinghai, a province in the northwest.
But the Internet picture supposedly featuring the Chinese paramilitary troops and the robes did not pass the smell test, as it seemed vaguely familiar, said Ehron Asher of Denver, a blogger, musician and artist. He has made it his mission on his blog and in Internet chat rooms to persuade people not to pass it along.
“Yes, the Chinese government should respect human rights,” Asher said. “But the Tibetan cause should not come at the cost of our own honesty.” The photo started making the rounds within days of the March 14 outbreak of violence.
Iris Ho, who works for a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, said she got it from a friend who had received it from a Tibetan.
“I was absolutely shocked,” she said. “The picture confirmed the stories we’ve read about Chinese police dressing up as monks to incite the protesting crowd.”
At some point the photo was attached to an article claiming that British intelligence agency spy photos “confirmed” that Chinese agents instigated the riots.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan exiled spiritual leader, echoed the charge in late March in New Delhi. “A few hundred soldiers have been dressed like monks,” he said, according to local newspapers.
The photo and unsubstantiated claim soon drew skepticism from some bloggers and Indian mainstream media, although Urgen Tenzin, director of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, an exile group in northern India, said the Dalai Lama drew on independent sources. “He never based his information on that photo,” he said.
Around this time, China’s military PLA Daily newspaper weighed in. The paramilitary soldiers depicted in the photo were from the Tibet Armed Police Corps and were acting as film extras, it said. They were wearing summer uniforms that are not worn in March, it added, and the type of rickshaw awning pictured was phased out in 2004.
The photo appears to be from the 2001 filming in Lhasa of “The Touch,” starring Michelle Yeoh, who said on her blog at the time that the filmmakers used 2,500 extras because they couldn’t find enough genuine lamas, a situation captured by photographer Yuan Rongzhao on his blog.
Former armed police corps member Tao Yongjun, an extra in the film, said that if he and the others serving as extras had been trying to hide anything they would not have been so conspicuous in handling the monks’ robes.
“In short, there doesn’t appear to be anything there,” said Robert Barnett, a professor at Columbia University.
Barnett is among those who received another e-mail, though this one apparently never got much traction, containing pictures of an Asian male allegedly carrying a Tibetan fetus on a tray and eating it. The man is identified as a staff member of the Lao La Sa Zhou Fang Chinese restaurant in Lhasa.
Given this behavior, the e-mail says, China has no moral right to host the Olympics this summer in Beijing. “Please pass this round the world,” it adds.
An assistant manager at Lao La Sa Zhou Fang, who asked not to be identified given tensions in Tibet, said the restaurant had no idea why it was singled out. “We are running a business following both the laws and our conscience,” the woman said. “We decry such rumors.”
Performance artist Zhu Yu said that, in fact, the photos are of him and were lifted from the brochure of his October 2000 show at the Shanghai Arts Expo titled “Eating People.” Zhu said his work was misused in a 2001 hoax that claimed that eating fetuses was a Taiwanese pasttime.
“They are rascals,” said Zhu, busy preparing for a Beijing exhibition of his oil paintings. “But given the Internet, I don’t think I am capable of stopping them by myself. Let it be.”
Gao Wenhuan in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.