“Almost Total Suppression of Information” After Tibet Fire

’s , a sacred Tibetan Buddhist site dating back in parts to the seventh century, caught on Saturday:

As news of the fire spread, so did reports of heavy on Chinese social media. Posts archived by Free Weibo indicate censorship even of seemingly innocuous content such as prayers for the temple, calls for people to keep the area clear so as not to obstruct firefighters, and dry historical detail. Meanwhile, official media offered little of the detail Tibetans sought for reassurance. Amid continuing uncertainty on Sunday, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips spoke to Barnett about the negative effects of the information controls:

China’s Communist party-controlled news agency, Xinhua, said the blaze started early on Saturday evening “and was soon put out”.

However, Robert Barnett, a London-based expert on contemporary Tibet, said Beijing’s “almost total suppression of information” about the incident meant many Tibetans feared “the heart of ” had suffered significant damage.

[…] “It’s devastating for people seeing this … [At first] it looked like it was impossible anything would survive … Now there is this uncertainty,” Barnett said. “Nobody knows quite what to believe … It could be less dramatic than people feared, but there is a big information vacuum about what has happened.”

China’s efforts to control the narrative surrounding the fire underscores the Jokhang temple’s huge political as well as religious significance. In recent decades the 2.5-hectare (6.2-acre) complex has been the site of repeated protests against Chinese rule, including one “astonishing act of defiance” witnessed by foreign journalists during a rare 2008 propaganda tour. [Source]

The temple previously suffered serious damage during the Cultural Revolution, when it was, according to the Central Tibetan Administration or Government in Exile, "plundered, destroyed and desecrated beyond repair." Last year, High Peaks Pure Earth translated a former Red Guard’s account of the temple’s sacking as originally told to Tibetan author Woeser, in which he was dismissive of the government’s claimed role in later restoration.

Even without the exceptional political and religious sensitivity of the Jokhang temple, news of is often subject to intense censorship as part of efforts to "maintain stability" in their wake. Simon Fraser University’s Jeremy Brown explained in an interview posted by CDT last August that "the Party’s definition of túfāshìjiàn 突发事件 [or "sudden incidents"] includes three things: accidents, natural disasters, and protests, or political disturbances. The Party has decided to put these three things together. […] There’s an automatic assumption by putting those things together that these are threats to the stability of the Communist Party, and so they need to be handled in the same way. Instead of being transparent, […] the impulse is to cover it up. [… Y]ou keep people from protesting, you keep them from linking up and organizing, and if you successfully do that, then that’s ‘good handling’ of an . The word ‘handling,’ chǔlǐ 处理, is what is done after an accident …. It’s a stand-in for ‘make it go away,’ basically."

In a later thread on Twitter, though, Barnett explained how censorship, opacity, and mistrust had spread anxiety, confusion, and rumor following the Jokhang incident:

Cameron David Warner, another Tibetologist, has been tweeting more information on the Jowo statue’s background and fears for its current state.

In another showcase of official information controls, The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers reported that he and photographer Gilles Sabrié endured a 17-hour "soft detention" and escort to Chengdu airport on a recent trip to observe New Year celebrations in a Tibetan region of Sichuan, despite theoretically looser restrictions on journalists there than in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The monks, dressed in crimson robes and wielding blue plastic swords, were rehearsing a dance they would perform the next day in celebration of the Tibetan New Year. Then a uniformed police officer appeared in the temple and said there were a few questions to answer.

So began nearly 17 hours in police custody for me and a French photographer, Gilles Sabrié, a long though not uncommon experience for foreign correspondents in China. It was hardly an ordeal, to be clear; journalists face far worse threats and abuse in China and elsewhere. It was, rather, a bother.

For the Chinese, though, it was a self-inflicted embarrassment. We had traveled high into the mountains of the Tibetan plateau last week to write about holiday traditions in that part of China. By detaining us, and ultimately expelling us from the region, the authorities succeeded in preventing that. So I am writing this instead.

China is a country that exudes confidence in its rising place on the world stage — and yet its officials belie that confidence with their hypersensitivity to what a foreign correspondent might encounter traveling untethered, and thus uncensored. [Source]

Myers cited the results of a recent survey by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which suggested that "from an already very low baseline, reporting conditions are getting worse." A Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s response to the survey was seen by some as an act of attempted intimidation that only underscored its results.