China Power | Society | East Asia

Coronavirus: The View From the Chinese Himalayas

In the majority Tibetan region, the viral outbreak is feeding into underlying ethnic tensions.

By Elisabeth Forster for
Coronavirus: The View From the Chinese Himalayas
Credit: Elisabeth Forster

Around 8 a.m. at over 3,500meters above sea level, with temperatures firmly below zero, dozens of women from the village rush to the local temple for their morning prayer, all wearing face masks. Monks from the nearby monastery descend to the town to buy groceries, also wearing face masks. It was a peculiar scene, and evidence of the novel coronavirus reaching this mostly untouched place. It was only the beginning.

In response to the global outbreak of the disease officially dubbed COVID-19, the autonomous Tibetan prefecture of Garze in western Sichuan on the Tibetan Plateau decided to close itself off to outsiders — including Chinese nationals. In the majority Tibetan region, the viral outbreak is not only leading to a de facto lockdown, but also feeding into underlying ethnic tensions.

On January 29, hotel owners in Garze abruptly enforced a no-outsiders policy, effectively kicking out all visitors to the region, which spans an area roughly the size of Greece. It is unclear whether this policy was decided by the local government or by the hotel owners themselves.

On the same day, the minivans connecting villages and cities, operated by different counties, stopped running. In this underdeveloped part of China, where few roads stretch between communities – and the roads that do unfold through twisting turns, high elevations, and jaw-dropping cliffs — these minivans are the only means of public transportation. Even taxis are few and far between and the minivans offer a crucial service to locals without their own cars.

At the time, there were only three confirmed cases in the prefecture. All were travellers from Wuhan, the city at the center of the epidemic, locals said. As of February 12, there were 36 confirmed infections in the prefecture, according to official data.

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Hotel owners in the area refused to attribute the shutdown to an edict from the local administration, but the speed with which the ban swept through the prefecture indicates a centralized decision. Within about two hours, hotels in three different cities across the region changed their minds and decided to refuse me entry. During the same period, bus schedules were dismantled.

After that, the entire prefecture took on the lockdown look that has been heavily publicized in international media. Locals report that the streets are now completely deserted, as everyone prefers to stay home.

The hospital in Garze’s prefectural seat, Kangding, on which most of the towns and villages rely for healthcare, issued a plea for surgical masks, gloves, and other medical supplies, on January 29. This made the locals even more wary of venturing outdoors.

The government has made its presence felt throughout the region, establishing temperature and identity checkpoints on major road arteries every 100 kilometers or so.

This is a banal reality across China since the Spring Festival at the end of January. But in a region where Tibetans are administrated by Han Chinese, these measures hold a different significance.

Garze, located in western Sichuan province, is part of the area traditionally known to Tibetans as Kham, encompassing today’s Tibet Autonomous Region and parts of Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces. In 1949, the region was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China. Since then, it has been subjected to cycles of relatively relaxed and more hardline policies toward culture and religion by different Beijing governments, explained Benno Weiner, assistant professor at Carnegie Melon.

Under the CCP, Garze has seen two rebellions, in 1956 and 2008. As elsewhere on the Tibetan Plateau, after 2008, the prefecture has experienced several cases of self-immolation, a method of protest used by individual Tibetans to express their dissatisfaction with Chinese rule.

Since 2008, the Chinese government has imposed stricter restrictions on language, education, religion, and travel. The area has been militarized and securitized, and a strong police presence can be felt throughout.

The prefecture government in Kangding looks more like a military camp than a local administration office. Equipped with high walls and statuesque guards, it emanates a sombreness only matched by ancient monasteries in the region.

Most Tibetans born in Garze cannot get passports any longer and sometimes face restrictions on travelling within China. Even those who have passports have been barred from exiting the prefecture during the coronavirus outbreak.

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The health officials, accompanied by police officers, checking the temperatures and IDs of people entering and exiting villages and towns are not only a new physical reminder of state control. They add another layer of securitization to the lives of an already heavily controlled and somewhat oppressed population.

At the same time, market forces have driven Han Chinese to cities in the mountains and Tibetans away from villages and nomadic lives. Locals want their children to have an education and be in a good position to compete in modern China.  But the primary language in schools is Mandarin Chinese, which means often diluting Tibetan language and culture for future generations. Some children in recent generations do not speak any Tibetan, locals said.

Given large investments from government and private agents, Tibetan regions in western China including Garze have seen unprecedented development in infrastructure, mining, and tourism. Han Chinese and some Hui Muslims from the surrounding areas have settled there and, in some cases, may get along well with the Tibetan population. But tensions between the groups have also increased, Professor Weiner said.

Under Tibetan Buddhism, not all development is good. Rivers are drying up due to hydroelectricity projects and mountains are torn apart for mining, destroying pasture and wildlife habitats. Tourists sometimes catch frogs or snakes and eat them, a Tibetan from a remote part of the prefecture said.

These practices are understood as sacrilege to the ecosystem of the Himalayas, and karmic retribution is only to be expected. The new coronavirus – which first infected humans because of wildlife consumption — directly fulfills this role in the Tibetan system of belief.

Ethnic tensions thus inevitably color the local response to the coronavirus in Garze. “You might be able to convince a hotel to let you stay. It’s the Chinese people we do not want,” a Tibetan explained.

Perhaps this was an isolated incident; one man’s opinion. Perhaps it is the silent truth of an ethnic minority turning inwards during a time of crisis and a surge in watchful eyes.

Elisabeth Forster is a journalist based in China.