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Tibetan Customs Include Horse Races ... And Paramilitary Police?

A close look at a photo of the Nagqu horse festival in northern Tibet at the National Museum of China in Beijing reveals a gaggle of surprising "spectators" at the traditional Tibetan event: Chinese paramilitary police (see enlargement).
Louisa Lim

In the exiled Tibetan calendar, March 10 is an emotive day, the anniversary of a failed uprising in 1959. It's marked by large protests by the exiled Tibetan community overseas, though this year Nepalese police reportedly arrested 18 Tibetans for "anti-China activities." This comes as the number of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule has already surged past a hundred.

Within China itself, exiled groups reported five Tibetans were arrested for staging a protest in Ganzi, a Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Sichuan province, while in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, police are reportedly launching a crackdown on personal cellphones.

State-sponsored repression seems entrenched in everyday life for Tibetans. For those who have any doubts, look no further than an exhibit in the National Museum of China — reportedly the world's biggest museum — flanking Tiananmen Square. It features a multimedia exhibit about the world's highest train ride from Qinghai province to Lhasa that allows visitors to sit in train seats and browse through photos showing everyday life in Tibet.

One of those pictures, under the heading "National Customs," shows the Nagqu horse festival in northern Tibet.

The foreground shows the horse race, but the detail in the background is telling: dozens of paramilitary police, armed with anti-riot shields and helmets, are standing guard, watching the race. Behind the crowds, more police are stationed in the stands, spaced out at regular intervals, some facing away from the race and looking into the distance for any sign of approaching trouble.

It's telling that such a state of affairs is considered so ordinary that it should slip into the county's showpiece museum.

On the other side of Tiananmen Square, the country's legislators are holding their annual meeting in the Great Hall of the People. The latest budget allows spending on domestic security of 769.1 billion yuan ($123 billion), which is more than the army's budget of 740 billion yuan ($118 billion). It's the third consecutive year that the domestic security budget has outpaced military spending.

China's ballooning security apparatus needs money to ensure domestic stability, by whatever means. And the "security maintenance" machine was openly visible outside the museum, on Tiananmen Square, where plainclothes policemen were marching along the outskirts of the square in formation in full view of the world.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.
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