The ancient site of Barkhor in the Tibetan capital often served as a battlefield between Chinese security forces and Tibetans. Today, it’s considered one of the safest places in China. Beijing attributes that peace to a vast on-the-ground surveillance and security network, which it calls “grid management.”
According to Chinese state-run media, the government’s program aims to manage society “without gaps, without blind spots, without blanks.”
Guard posts are visible outside entrances to shops and court yards around the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. According to Chinese officials, each guard is a local selected by the Residents’ Management Committee.
“This is a Chinese specialty, where the masses participate in managing and controlling society and they also enjoy the results of managing their society,” said Qi Zhala, the top Communist Party official in Lhasa, in an interview with Reuters.
Several Han Chinese are particularly fond of the initiative which was launched to minimize conflict between Tibetans and Chinese security forces– an issue which spans back to 1950, when Chinese troops first marched into Tibet.
“If there’s anyone suspicious entering the courtyard, then they know,” said Barkhor resident Shou Tianjiang, referring to a guard post in the center of the courtyard where he rents a room for his sock business.
Chinese officials ban foreign journalists from Tibet making independent reporting of the situation on the ground very difficult. However, Reuters reporters and a few other journalists were granted access to the region earlier this month when the government led a highly-choreographed tour.
Reuters reported that the security presence seemed a lot more laxed than it did when it was allowed a rare visit to the Tibetan capital five years ago, when they saw paramilitary officers patrolling the streets and personnel carriers stationed on nearly every road.
Still, some activists see the surveillance program, which was formally implemented in Nov. 2014, as another measure for China to exert complete control over Tibet.
“They want to detect and root out any sentiment that runs counter to the party state,” said Kate Saunders, spokesperson for the International Campaign for Tibet, in an interview with Reuters.
Activists argue that China is using an iron fist to hammer out religious freedom and culture in Tibet, while Chinese officials claim they are only bringing development to a backward region.
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