GARZE COUNTY, China (AP) — As a speedskating team was winning China’s first Olympic gold medal of the Beijing Games, all seemed quiet in the villages that line the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau.
A bus flew past gold-roofed monasteries on freshly paved asphalt. Red-robed monks rode motorcycles over windswept plains under snow-capped mountains.
It was a stark difference from 14 years ago, when China hosted its first Olympics. That summer, foreigners filmed deadly clashes between Tibetans and security forces in Lhasa, the regional capital. News of the violence fueled protests, hunger strikes and self-immolations across the Tibetan region.
Today, there are no monks marching on police stations. No overturned cars or hurled stones. Far more international attention and outrage is directed at Xinjiang in China's far northwest, where some human rights groups and Western governments say the Chinese government has been carrying out a campaign of genocide against the region's Uyghur population.
The once-relentless waves of protesters setting themselves afire has slowed. No self-immolations have been reported in the past two years; over the prior decade, there were more than 150.
In China, where the government tightly controls information and limits access to areas seen as politically sensitive, it's always hard to know what's really happening. And few areas in China are considered as politically sensitive as Tibet.
As a bus carrying an Associated Press journalist traveled through the rugged borderlands in Sichuan close to Tibet, it suddenly ground to a halt. Police officers filed aboard and ordered him off. Even though he had tested negative for the coronavirus three times in the previous five days, the officers ordered him expelled from the area due to pandemic controls.
Why have Tibetans seemingly acceded to Chinese rule after centuries of self-governance and decades of fervent protest and civil disobedience? The answer, based on interviews with more than a dozen Tibetans inside and outside of China: In many ways, Beijing’s plan to tame Tibet is working.
Older Tibetans remain resentful. But after decades of struggle, many have resigned themselves to being part of China. Younger Tibetans are split: Some still secretly long for independence, while others call themselves proud Chinese citizens.
Ever since China's People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1951, the region had been locked in a bitter cycle of revolt and repression. Beijing’s harsh controls only prompted Tibetans to cry harder for autonomy, causing ever more severe crackdowns.
As the first Olympics approached in early 2008, and the world's attention turned toward China, the familiar cycles of protest and crackdown accelerated. That March, five months before the opening ceremony, police beat and arrested monks in Lhasa who were clamoring for religious freedom.
Tibetans turned violent, throwing rocks and setting fire to flags, cars and shops. They killed more than a dozen people, most of them civilians of the country's majority Han Chinese ethnicity.
State security opened fire. Activist groups reported over 100 deaths while authorities said they were only warning shots. Leaked internal government documents later revealed that at least 26 Tibetans had been killed.
As word of the bloodshed spread, demonstrations erupted across the Tibetan plateau. One day, they came to Drago county, which borders Garze county on the plateau’s eastern reaches in Sichuan.
Tsewang Dhondup was volunteering at a monastery when he and hundreds of others witnessed an officer beating a nun. When they rushed forward to confront the police, they were met with gunfire. A bullet went through Dhondup’s stomach.
“I took part because I felt the struggles my family and I were facing shouldn’t be passed on to my children,” Dhondup said from Canada, where he fled in 2012 after 14 months hiding from Chinese police.
After the Olympics, Beijing launched a sweeping campaign to control the hearts and minds of Tibetans.
Many areas were targeted for the government's signature anti-poverty campaign. Billions were poured into airports, highways, schools and other construction in Tibet. Electricity and free healthcare have come to vast swaths of the region.
Such efforts have helped win support from some young Tibetans, said one Tibetan from a poor, rural part of the plateau, who agreed to speak anonymously in order to speak candidly.
With jobs and investment come stepped up security and surveillance.
Phones and the internet, once used to organize protests, have become tools to monitor and control. Those who criticize the state or speak up about the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader-in-exile, find their movements restricted. Some are placed under house arrest or imprisoned.
“We’re unhappy, but we don’t dare say anything,” said the Tibetan, who agreed to speak anonymously. “We still want to fight to preserve our language, for traditional culture, but everyone is scared. Nobody wants to die.”
In 2011, up-and-coming Communist Party leader Chen Quanguo became the top government official in Tibet. He pioneered new forms of state control, dividing urban areas into grids for police surveillance, and building hundreds of 24-hour police stations and a few extrajudicial detention centers for rebellious monks and nuns.
Gradually, Chen's measures succeeded in pacifying the unrest. Five years later, he was transferred to neighboring Xinjiang, where he deployed the same tactics on a vastly wider and more extreme scale, overseeing a draconian campaign of mass incarceration against the Uyghurs.
Kesang Lamdark, a Tibetan artist living in Switzerland and the son of a renowned monk from Garze, said the dream of a free Tibet crashes against the reality of the Chinese police state.
“If you protest and protest, what’s it going to bring? If they catch you, you’ll go to prison," he said. “There’s nothing much you can do.”
In Tibet, authorities have tolerated a degree of religious freedom — unlike in Xinjiang, where many mosques now stand virtually empty after thousands were imprisoned for praying and owning Qurans.
In the Tibetan quarter of Chengdu, the capital of neighboring Sichuan Province, tens of thousands of Tibetans live under the state's watchful gaze. Monks amble the streets, thumbing prayer beads. The devout spin handheld prayer wheels. Han Chinese shopkeepers bargain with Tibetan customers over incense and images of Buddha.
Here, many young Tibetans are forging a new bicultural identity — one that celebrates their culture without challenging Beijing's rule. It's evident in a plaza where crowds gather each evening, dancing to Tibetan tunes infused with Buddhist mantras and set to a thumping beat.
“I am a true Tibetan, and at the same time I am also a true Chinese,” said Kunchok Dolma, 28, who is a devout Buddhist and also teaches modern dance in flawless Mandarin. “There's no conflict between these things.”
McNeil reported from Beijing. Associated Press videojournalist Emily Wang in Beijing contributed to this report