With foreign journalists barred from Tibet, France 24 reporters travelled to the neighbouring province of Sichuan to speak to Tibetans about the 50th anniversary of their failed revolution. They found the Chinese authorities less than welcoming.
I had my first taste of the increased security measures as I was leaving the plane on my arrival in Chengdu. I had overheard one of the flight attendants telling the Chinese passenger next to me that there would be a delay because of checks to make sure foreigners weren’t trying to fly to Tibet’s capital Lhasa, and when I got to the front of the plane, a young, slightly nervous-looking government official flicked through my passport, checked my name against a list, and then handed it back to me with a smile and a xiexie, Mandarin for thank you.
My colleagues and I then headed to a monastery, some 60 kilometres outside of Chengdu, with the hope of gaining our first interview. However, an hour’s drive and a 25-minute walk uphill later, the abbot said he could not allow us to film any of the monks or give an interview without permission from the local government, something that would not be given quickly.
Driving back through Chengdu, nothing seemed out of the ordinary – shops were open, traffic proceeded as usual, people were going about their daily business. However, when we reached the Tibetan quarter, we found armed police at every entry point and uniformed as well as plain-clothed officers swarming the streets.
We were stopped as soon as we got out of the car, asked for our passports and accreditation and told we could go no further because it was too dangerous, but it was OK to enter during the day.
We returned this morning and, sure enough, were allowed to wander freely through the area. Our producer found a Tibetan businessman, who reluctantly agreed to be interviewed, and we went into his restaurant.
We chatted for about 10 minutes as I set up the camera, but just as we were about to begin, there was a knock at the door and a man in broken English asked what we were doing. Turning around, we found around 15 to 20 policeman and officials standing in the adjoining room, motioning for us to come out. They asked for our passports and journalist cards, and started making notes of our details.
Handing them back, we asked if we were under arrest, and they said no. We asked if we could leave, and they asked if we could please wait for a bit, while making it perfectly clear that we could not leave.
For the next 45 minutes there was a flurry of phone calls and people running in and out, as we sat there waiting. Eventually we were asked to go down to the police station, not under arrest, but to give more information. Despite our protests that we had done nothing wrong, we were escorted to the street, where we waited through another 20 minutes of frantic phone calls, after which it was decided that we should head back into the restaurant to wait again.
We had met one of the policemen the previous night, and after asking us again what we were doing there, we exchanged pleasantries for another half an hour or so, before his less than pleasant superior finally arrived. Having told us all rather gruffly to stop using our mobile phones he again took our passports and journalist cards, and after telling us for about the fourth time that we were not allowed to film or conduct interviews in any Tibetan areas, we were finally allowed to leave.
The hope was then to drive to a Tibetan area outside Chengdu, and make a report there. However our driver was told that if he was caught trying to take us through a checkpoint, into a Tibetan area, he would have his car impounded and have to pay a fine of up to 2,000 Euros, a considerable amount of money for people here.
We are therefore forced to cover the story from afar, with few sources. A victory of sorts for the Chinese government, which wants to make sure news of any trouble stays firmly out of the public domain.