As Tibetans — led by Buddhist monks — rioted in the capital city of Lhasa, burning Chinese-owned businesses and attacking Chinese, Beijing clamped down on YouTube and other media outlets depicting the violence.
The trouble began a week ago, when Buddhist monks demonstrated peacefully March 10 on the anniversary of a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 that culminated in the Dalai Lama and most of the leading Buddhist monks in Tibet fleeing into exile. Friday, things went sour, with anti-Chinese violence erupting.
Access to YouTube was blocked after about 20 videos of the violence in Tibet were shown on the site. These were mainly of foreign news reports and montages of photos taken at the scene in Lhasa and of protests overseas.
China-based video Web sites such as 56.com, Youku.com and Tudou.com did not post any protest scenes, and it’s believed the Chinese government warned them against doing so.
On Monday, China denounced attacks on its embassies by pro-Tibetan activists and called on other countries to protect its diplomatic personnel.
Anti-Chinese rallies were held in several cities abroad. The Chinese embassy in San Francisco, for example, was besieged all day by raucous pro-Tibetan activists under the watchful eye of the city’s police officers.
Meanwhile, about 40 students staged a sit-down protest at the Central University for Nationalities, an elite school for ethnic minorities in Beijing, as police kept watch.
In Gansu Province’s Maqu County, thousands of monks and Tibetan civilians clashed with police in various locations, injuring several police officers, who said they were unarmed. In neighboring Sichuan Province, clashes between monks and police erupted Sunday.
In Nepal, police forcibly dispersed about 100 Tibetan protesters and Buddhist monks near the main UN offices in Katmandu, and arrested more than 40 people.
Stomping the Media
In the wake of the riots, officials expelled foreign reporters from Tibetan enclaves in Qinghai and Gansu provinces.
Meanwhile, police booted out reporters from three Hong Kong TV stations — Cable TV, TVB and ATV — and made TVB cameramen delete their footage of the violence that erupted Friday, according to the station.
Reports say Google News and Yahoo were also blocked.
YouTube’s reaction was, to put it mildly, restrained: “We understand there are reports of users being unable to access YouTube within the People’s Republic of China,” the company said. “We are looking into the matter, and working to ensure that the service is restored as soon as possible.”
Beijing’s blocking of the Web sites was not 100 percent effective: Tests by researchers at UC Davis and the University of New Mexico showed that banned words reached their destinations on about 28 percent of the paths they tested. Filtering was least effective during periods of heavy Internet traffic.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Micah Sifry, editor of Personal Democracy Forum, told TechNewsWorld. “The technology seems to get adapted for all kinds of unexpected uses by people once they get their hands on it, and governments seem to constantly be playing catch-up to try to prevent its spread.”
In Cuba, for example, where the government has “really clamped down on Internet access” and there is an “infinitesimal” number of Internet cafes, people download information onto a memory chip then lend the chip to their friends who plug it into their cell phones, Sifry said.
“Even if you don’t have ubiquitous wireless and other forms of connectivity, when you try and suppress information, people will find a way around it,” he added.
Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama and Tibetan nationalists of stirring up trouble before the 2008 Olympics in the hopes of getting people to boycott the Games. That, however, is not likely.
While condemning the violence, the EU has ruled out boycotting the Olympics. Russia expressed its hope that China would do what was necessary to curtail unlawful actions in Tibet.
What the protests do highlight, however, is the power of the Internet and citizen journalism.
“Technology is shifting power away from centralized institutions into the hands of decentralized networked groups, and this is going to play out across our societies,” Sifry said. “We’re all learning how to adapt to that changed world and it’s going to have great benefits and great pitfalls.”