Monday, March 31, 2008

Investigating allegations that Tibet riots had been staged

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The live blogger of Lhasa has responded -- point by point -- to the questions raised in this post. I have reposted the bulk of the following post side-by-side with Kadfly's response here.

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.

This video from Michael from Italy is an excellent example.
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.

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.

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.
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 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).

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.

"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.
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.

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.

The Epoch Times article continues:

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."

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.

The article also suggests that the China may have a history of staging riots in Tibet.

Final Thoughts

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.

Questions have been raised about the rioters of Lhasa. The evidence presented here demands further inquiry.

* 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.


  1. This kind of analysis is definitely interesting. The only problem is that it runs the risk of missing the big picture.

    Keep up the good job.



  2. You need to check your research more carefully. The picture was from 2003 movie shooting. See link:

    And the site is pro-tibet so the source of defence is not toward China. Looks at the footing. "This is not an uncommon 'tactical move' from the Chinese government,
    as could be seen on the back-cover of the 2003 annual TCHRD Report
    This photo was apparently made when monks refused to play as actors in a movie,
    so soldiers were ordered to put on robes."

  3. I'm the one who sent you the link. Recommend another link:

    But with your obvious prejudice against China, I don't really know whether this matters. Just a few words for you: try to be balanced.

  4. The problem is, those Soldiers or Monks look very Chinese.

  5. You are a LIAR, Jotman! Don't try to fool the world with your fake photographs. If you are interested in movie making, do go ahead to Hollywood!

    Don't think that the netizens are idiots!

  6. Anonymous:

    The picture was from 2003 movie shooting. See link:

    Well done! Thank you.

  7. Hi shengpalace, you wrote:

    You are a LIAR, Jotman! Don't try to fool the world with your fake photographs. If you are interested in movie making, do go ahead to Hollywood!

    Don't think that the netizens are idiots!

    Which "fake photographs" are you referring to? Why do you call them "my fake photographs?" If you think a photo is fake, I want to know about it. Some more specific feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    Where did I write that I "think that the netizens are idiots"?

  8. Shengpalace, I share your frustration toward the false but wide spread biased view against China on the Tibet issue. But I think many are simply misled. And I don't think Jotman knew the picture was from 2003. That's why I went to collect the evidence. All arguments need to be supported by logic and evidence. Let's be cool-headed and make the world understand China better in a constructive way. Besides, greater power comes with greater burden. We should all be prepared for more international criticisms, justified or not, as China emerges in the political stage of the world.

  9. Sorry, you have been wasting your effort for these fabrications.

    Should Dalai Lama proclaimed himself as such ‘peace loving God', why can he at least ensure the continuing protests in Nepal or India – right in front of his own door step, to be more peaceful? Why does the local police force have to engage such direct confrontations with the ‘peaceful Tibetans’ day after day?

    Can not face up the inconvenient truth?????? So shut up

  10. Anonymous wrote:
    But I think many are simply misled. . . .

    Thank you, I appreciate your last comment. And thank you again for bringing your good and timely research to my attention.

  11. Jotman, your analysis focuses on 3 points. 1. The han biker video 2.the tibetan wielding knife photo 3.Why didn't chinese cops do anything.

    1. Imaging you were Kadfly. You see a group of what looks like to be Tibetans gaining up on someone on a bike in a distance. You have been at close range and seen ethnic Tibetans were targeting ethnic hans, attacking them and burning down their stores as verified by many other foreign tourists in what looks to be a race riot. Wouldn't it be logical to conclude that it was the biker was a Han? Why else would a group of ethnic Tibetans attack someone in middle of a race riot? If the man wasn't a Han, wouldn't someone else have stood up?

    2. Since one of these two photos was doctored it's Kadfly vs. Epoch Times. While it's easy to obscure an image from a photo by adding some smoke to cover the effects, its very difficult to add a person into a picture with the correct shadows lining up. Moreover, EpochTimes is known to be a propaganda mouthpiece for Falun Gong, while Kadfly appears to be just some Canadian tourist.

    3. The Chinese police didn't do anything because they knew western media was there and therefore had to wait for the decision to come from the top. The protest definitely took them by surprise, but the last thing any police would want is their face on western media with the caption "Chinese police brutally cracking down on peaceful protesters". This would ensure that they would be fired from the force or worse for embarrassing China.

    Out of these three points, the argument about the knife wielding Tibetan is the most telling of Jotman's own bias. It's easy to conclude which photo has been doctored. Has your desire to believe one side over another gotten to your head?

  12. Hi Anonymous:

    You wrote: Imaging you were Kadfly. . . .Wouldn't it be logical to conclude . . . Why else would a group of ethnic ... Tibetans attack If the man wasn't a Han . . .

    Yes, the assumptions, the logic, it all adds up to: a story. But a "plausible story" ain't necessarily what happened.

    I think some interesting questions have been raised about the video that should not be hard to answer. I hope "Michael from Italy" tells us more about what he saw, how he remembers things.

    2. Since one of these two photos was doctored it's Kadfly vs. Epoch Times.

    I don't think Kadfly doctored the photo. I believe Kadfly's photo is authentic.

    The doctoring -- if it happened -- I want to see for myself the actual evidence from the publication -- would have been done by the PRC government.

    Moreover, EpochTimes is known to be a propaganda mouthpiece for Falun Gong, while Kadfly appears to be just some Canadian tourist.

    Kadfly's cool. The question is: did the government of China doctor the photo or not? I agree it's not enough to take the Epoch Times at its word. We need to see the evidence for ourselves.

    This thing absolutely should not be framed as Kadfly Vs anybody. It's not a trial, it's an investigation. We need to ask q's and listen.

    And BTW, this just came to my attention a few minutes ago: It's not the mainly the Epoch Times, but the Dalai Lama himself who stands behind the story about the knife.

    Let's hope Kadfly will supply more context, details about how people were acting and who was there and who was not. . . Also we should probe Dalai Lama's evidence.

    3. The Chinese police didn't do anything because . . . The protest definitely took them by surprise . . . This would ensure that . . .

    That's is the theory. But what sounds like a decent theory to us isn't necessarily what happened.

    Out of these three points, the argument about the knife wielding Tibetan is the most telling of Jotman's own bias. It's easy to conclude which photo has been doctored. Has your desire to believe one side over another gotten to your head?

    This isn't about Jotman. It isn't about my bias or anyone's bias. It's about learning whether or not the photos and videos show what we have been led to assume they show.

    Where we are motivated to settle our doubts, the only way is to keep asking.

  13. Jotman, the Chinese bloggers have tracked down the movie set where the photo was taken. The movie is "Red River Valley" (红河谷):

  14. Nice analysis...

    But quoting from the Epoch Times does nothing for your argument.

    One of the downsides of free speech is that anyone with enough cash can get published.

  15. As far as I know the Epoch times is as good a news paper as the Third Reich newsreel. Really one should take anything that is said in it (especially those that are controversial) with a rather high dose of salt.

  16. About the motor-cyclist, I mean he could have been easily identified as a Han. Perhaps he couldn't speak Tibetan? If he was a Tibetan he might have cried this out loud at the point when he was attacked? Or perhaps someone in the crowd knew him? He may be riding on the street but doesn't mean he is a stranger. Perhaps he just lived near by? He naturally won't change his helmet everyday wound he? And perhaps he wears that jacket often too. In any case they may be able to recognise his bike?

    There is one flaw in the logic in why the Chinese government would actually WANT to incite trouble in Tibet. Politically what will they gain in escalating trouble in the sensitive region just prior Olympics so to get all the world's attention on the trouble? Which party would want to make this incident as loud as possible? Dharamsala or Beijing? How we got the news in the west is important, because we got it AFTER the violence have broke out. Now when did you hear about the protests of the monks? That is also AFTER the reports of the violence's. i.e. We got the news because of the riot, not because of the monks protesting.

    Now isn't it to the best interest of the Chinese government to make this issue as insignificant or quite as possible before it gets more attention? If the riot hasn't been started, I would bet that the initial would pass largely unnoticed.

    Any means of staging is an offensive move. It is meant to attack the other party's reputation etc. It actually requires detailed planning, i.e. the intent to carry out such an operation prior the incident. However since stability is the number one concern for the Chinese government before the Olympics, it begs believe that they would do anything to intentionally disturb the the status quo in Tibet at this time of the year.

    When we analyse we have to take account in the motives as well. I personally cannot see any motivation on the Chinese government part. The motivation may be justified if you see it as Beijing trying to blame the incident on Dharamsala. But as I explained earlier this view is simplistic, as it would be much better for Beijing to have no incidents at all. And if there were no riots there will be no incidents.

  17. Just one comment on how we should believe Kadfly's "assumption" on the biker being a Han Chinese: Because he's not the only one saying this!

    I'm sure you are aware of the report by James Miles from the Economist:

    “What I saw was calculated targeted violence against an ethnic group, or I should say two ethnic groups, primarily ethnic Han Chinese living in Lhasa, but also members of the Muslim Hui minority in Lhasa. Almost every (Han & Hui owned) business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned. It was an extraordinary outpouring of ethnic violence of a most unpleasant nature to watch, which surprised some Tibetans watching it.

    ... At one point, I saw them throwing stones at a boy of maybe around 10 years old perhaps cycling along the street. I in fact walked out in front of them and said stop. It was a remarkable explosion of simmering ethnic grievances in the city.”

    The link is still valid on CNN, welcome to give a good read.

    We should respect the truth.


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