Were the riots in Lhasa staged by Chinese soldiers? An investigation in two parts.*
PART II: THE MYSTERY DEEPENS (updated Wed April 2, 2008)
Anti-PRC sources have made at least two other claims backed by evidence. They suggest that apparent acts of violence in Lhasa had been faked by Chinese government agents or soldiers guised as Tibetans.
As my regular readers know, I have blogged the Tibet crisis since it broke. To me, perhaps the most perplexing angle was that which was provided by the traveler-blogger Kadfly. Today some of my earliest questions -- stemming from when I first read Kadfly's blog reports -- persist. Today, 1 photo and 1 video that had originally been posted by blogger Kadfly on March 14 are central to two claims -- made by anti-PRC groups -- that roting in Lhasa was "staged" by China.
Those who claim rioting in Lhasa was staged may not be aware of the fact that it was Kadfly who first posted the evidence. This post may well be the first published description of the connection.
I feel a kind of personal affinity with Kadfly. Kadfly found himself in a similar position to myself when I blogged the Thailand coup on the streets of Bangkok around midnight on September 19 2006. Like myself, he became "a citizen journalist" overnight. Kadfly was one of a handful of Western witnesses to the protests in Lhasa. He was its only live-blogger. I am proud to have been among the first bloggers to link to Kadfly (here). On March 19 Kadfly reflected on the situation in Tibet, blogging from Kathmandu:
Tibet, as I said above, is a complex issue: as I have seen in these protests, it is not simply a matter of the big, bad Chinese government versus the Tibetan underdogs, which is unfortunately how the media has tried to shape this issue. Why we (those in the 'newsroom' in the hotel on the 14th and 15th) decided to upload the video of the motorcyclist being attacked is because we had seen from the news that this was exactly what was not being reported. We suspected this might be the case from the very start when our photos began to be picked up by the media: my photo of the Chinese soldiers in the shield formation and the Tibetan man burning the Chinese flag might be very powerful, but do they really tell the story of what happened that day any better than a bus of civilians being stoned and a man lying on the pavement after having been brutally attacked? No, but these other photos would have taken too much effort to explain to an audience that has become used to the narrative of a bad China and a good Tibet. So yeah, there was never a hidden agenda. I don't think anyone in that room had particularly strong feelings on the issue: all we wanted to do was get the truth out, no matter how complex and how hard it was for people to swallow.In the portions of the text which I highlighted above, Kadfly refers to two reports -- a video and a photograph of a burning flag -- that anti-PRC groups now cite as evidence of a Chinese plot to fake the rioting. Let's examine these claims and take a look at the evidence.
EXHIBIT A: The Biker Video
First, the video of the biker. For several days, this video was the only visual evidence available -- at least to me -- that the protests may have involved brutal attacks by Tibetans against Han Chinese in Lhasa. On Friday March 14 Kadfly had blogged:
I want to make one thing clear because all of the major news outlets are ignoring a very important fact. Yes, the Chinese government bears a huge amount of blame for this situation. But the protests yesterday were NOT peaceful. The original protests from the past few days may have been, but all of the eyewitnesses in this room agree the protesters yesterday went from attacking Chinese police to attacking innocent people very, very quickly. They appeared to target Muslim and Han Chinese individuals and businesses first but many Tibetans were also caught in the crossfire.Kadfly had made a bold and -- at the time -- controversial assertion. It's a post that has since been cited by the Chinese group attacking CNN (see above); meaning Kadfly now figures prominently in Chinese attacks on the Western media. This article in China Daily concerning media bias in the West quotes Kadfly. Judging by a recent New York Times report, this campaign may be considered integral to the recent propaganda initiative of the Beijing government.
This video from Michael from Italy is an excellent example.
Kadfly's observations have since been collaborated by various tourists, the journalist for the Economist magazine, and others. But that was by no means the case when Kadfly posted his opinion. For several days, the outside world was in the dark about what was really going on inside Tibet. Upon first eading Kadfly's post, I thought it a pity that Kadfly had not provided further elaboration as to the specifics of what "the eyewitnesses in this room" had seen -- details.
Kadfly would later write (see above for the context):
. . . these other photos would have taken too much effort to explain to an audience that has become used to the narrative of a bad China and a good Tibet.I was sorry to read that Kadfly felt this way -- I say this as a blogger who was simply trying to make sense of the Tibet situation at the time. When it came to Kadfly's assertion about ethnic violence, apart from the motorcycle video, he offered no other descriptions of actual attacks on Han Chinese or Muslims. This omission made it difficult for critically-minded overseas readers to fully accept his opinion about what was happening -- especially at a time when there were no reliable collaborating sources.
However, Kadfly's blogging opened our eyes, and his photographs are remarkable. Although Kadfly did us a great service by blogging the unrest in Tibet, contrary to what some sources in the Chinese blogosphere now claim, Kadfly's blog does not constitute evidence that Western news organizations lied about what happened in Tibet.
What about the video Kadfly supplied? In the video someone bashes a helmet-wearing motorcycle driver in the head with rocks. Kadfly had written:
This motorcyclist, who I assume the protesters identified as Han Chinese, was simply riding up Beijing Street when the video took place. He was not army, not police, not doing anything other than riding his motorcycle.I watched the video myself, but this question nagged me: How had the attackers identified the man as Chinese? What was happening in Tibet? On the basis of this one video, and Kadfly's otherwise unsupported opinion, I could not decide. Neither could any other responsible member of the media.
Who was the motorcycle rider? Last week, someone representing the pro-Tibetan group "No Olympics" sent me a YouTube expose concerning the video of the motorcycle rider. The the expose video asserts that the man in the video was not easily identifiable as Han Chinese; that he did not seem to have been hurt (he was wearing a helmet, and no rocks appeared to have been aimed at his body); that people in Tibet are seldom seen wearing helmets; that large stones were conveniently available on pavement beside the bike; and that the driver-victim appears unafraid of his attackers (at the end of the video he walks away). Here is the video expose:
I don't think this expose video settles the question. We need to look into the circumstances surrounding the filming of the video. The video warrants professional analysis. And we need to hear what the Italian named Michael has to say.
EXHIBIT B: The man burning the Chinese flag
The second claim that some rioting in Lhasa was staged is presented by the fervently anti-PRC Epoch Times. The claim is based on what Kadfly calls his "very powerful" photo of "the Tibetan man burning the Chinese flag."
Kadfly has since removed this particular photo from his website. Why? He said he would be removing some photos so that the Tibetans pictured in the photos could not later be identified. On 19 March he blogged:
First, as Joakim and others have pointed out, a lot of the photos from the 'Lhasa Burning' post show people's faces and may lead to their arrest. As such, I will be taking these particular photos down - if you think other photos should be taken down for similar reasons please make a comment so that I know about it.On March 16, I cut, saved, and posted this particular photo -- the one that has been called into question by the Epoch Times -- to illustrate the post at Jotman.com entitled "Kadfly's live-blogging of the Tibet crisis." To the left is the photo which was posted on Kadfly's blog, but which Kadfly has since removed (I modified the brightness of Kadfly's photo for effect).
I will admit that I struggled with this decision for a little while: many of those shown in the photos were acting little better than violent thugs when the pictures were taken (e.g. in the flag burning photo one of those shown began throwing rocks at others in the hotel moments after I took the picture) so I'm unsure if they actually deserve any protection from the authorities. That said, I will keep those particular photos off my blog for now.
Now, according to a March 29 article published in the Epoch Times, the photo at right
. . . is a copy of the picture of the same scene in Lhasa but with the man with the knife now missing, which was distributed after the man's identity was revealed at a rally in Darmasala.The identity of the man with the knife is said to be that of a Chinese soldier. Not mentioned in the Epoch Times article is a more recent development: at a news conference on March 29, none other than the Dalai Lama appears to refer to the sword-wielding man in the photo; Dalai Lama also said troops disguised as monks had incited the violence. According to a recent news report:
In his most serious allegation against Beijing since unrest gripped Lhasa and other places this month, the Dalai Lama said that China had disguised its troops as monks to give the impression that Tibetans were instigating the riots.Is the Dalai Lama referring to the same sword photo mentioned in the Epoch Times article? If so, the photograph has been is elevated to a level of international controversy, with the China issuing an official denial of the allegation.
"In one picture we see a (monk) holding a sword, but it is not a traditional Tibetan sword. We know that a few hundred soldiers have been dressed like monks," said the Dalai Lama, who has been living in India since fleeing his homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
The Epoch Times article continues:
Evidence is accumulating that the Chinese regime orchestrated violence in Lhasa in order to discredit the peaceful protests of Buddhist monks.
According to the Dalai Lama's Chinese translator, Ngawang Nyendra, a witness reported that a Chinese policeman in Lhasa disguised himself as a Tibetan and joined the protesters holding a knife in his hand. This witness also recognized the man from BBC news footage and news photos provided by China.** (see Update)
A Chinese woman from Thailand (who prefers that her name not be used) was studying in Lhasa when the protests broke out in March. As one of her friends is a policeman, she visited him at the local police station quite often and got to know other policemen there.
After the protests on March 14, she and other foreigners were sent to the police station where she saw a man with a knife in his hand walking in with some arrested Tibetans. The man later took off the Tibetan-style clothes and put on a police uniform.
This woman was sent out of Lhasa with other foreigners the next day. When she arrived in India via Nepal, she recognized the policeman she had seen in Tibetan garb from BBC TV news and photos that the Chinese embassy had provided to the media.
Kadfly said he took photo in question. So he must have seen this scene unfold. We need to ask Kadfly to provide us with context behind the photo -- his input here could be invaluable.
On Xinhua and other Chinese -language Web sites friendly to the regime, after the rally at which the witness spoke, the policeman in disguise had disappeared from photos taken at the same scene in which he had previously been visible. Recently, the original man-with-the-knife photo has returned to these Web sites.
Ngawang Nyendra said, "This photo with this man in it was sent by the Chinese embassy to BBC and Radio Free Asia. The other photo was sent out later. They are exactly the same except the man has disappeared from the second photo.
"From the TV news footage, you can see this man attempting to stab other people with a knife. But in later shots you can't find this person any more. They were acting. After people raised questions about these shots, this footage never appeared on TV again."
The article also suggests that the China may have a history of staging riots in Tibet.
Although the Epoch Times article gave me a lot to think about, neither its account nor the "expose" of the motorcycle rider video had me convinced the rioting was staged. I have continued to remind myself that suspicious things sometimes have innocuous explanations -- as we saw with regards to the photograph of the soldiers carrying monk robes. But these other allegations have raised the nagging doubts to a level of urgency. And the more recent statement by the Dalai Lama convinces me that we must get to the bottom of this deepening mystery.
A motorcyclist wearing a helmet gets attacked and then appears to stick around: is this evidence of a staged attack? I would like to hear what "Michael from Italy" has to say about it. What about the man holding the sword? Kadfly might describe for us the situation -- as he remembers events unfolding -- when he took the photo. Most importantly -- concerning the fact that a swordsman disappears and reappears in the photograph -- we need to examine allegations of photo-doctoring by the PRC, first brought to light by the Epoch Times. The more recent allegations brought to the attention of the world by the Dalai Lama also merit further examination.
* Click here for PART I: CASE CLOSED
Update 1 (April 4, 2008): I just came across a newspaper article in the Christian Science Monitor by a reporter who spoke with Kadfly, someone named Paul, and a European (Michael the Italian?) at the time of the unrest.
** Update #2: ESWN blogger examines some of the evidence presented in the above post. He says, effectively, that the Epoch Times report is untrue because there is no record of the TV footage mentioned by the Dalai Lama's translator on YouTube: "If there was TV news footage, it would have been posted on YouTube or some other video-sharing site."
Update 3: Kadfly has posted some new photos and comments on the photo in question. "The "man-with-the-knife" is most definitely in the original" he writes.
Update 4 (April 17): Kadfly, now blogging from India, has just posted a detailed and extremely informative reply to questions raised in this post on his blog.
Update 5 (April 18): I have reposted the bulk of the following post side-by-side with Kadfly's response here.