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China's Hu Jintao visits Tibetan region hit by earthquake

As the death toll rises and the handling of disaster relief comes under close scrutiny, the president's visit is the latest effort by the government to portray itself as compassionate and competent.

April 19, 2010|By Barbara Demick

Reporting from Beijing — Chinese President Hu Jintao flew Sunday to the site of last week's earthquake on the Tibetan plateau, the latest effort to portray a government that is both compassionate and competent to a people who have made it clear at times that they don't want to be under Chinese rule.

With the death toll rising sharply -- at latest count, 1,706 -- China's handling of the disaster relief is under close scrutiny. The pressure on China has been heightened by a request over the weekend by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, to visit the area where the earthquake struck and pray for victims. In a letter released Saturday by his office in Dharmsala, India, the Dalai Lama noted that he was born in Qinghai province, where the quake hit.

"To fulfill the wishes of many of the people there, I am eager to go there myself to offer them comfort," he said. He also in the letter complimented the Chinese government for its handling of earthquake relief, in particular pointing to an unusually long visit by Premier Wen Jiabao on Thursday and Friday.

Beijing has not yet formally responded, but is thought unlikely to approve a visit from a religious leader it has vilified as a separatist who would destroy China's unity.

Over the weekend, Buddhist monks cremated more than 1,000 bodies on a hillside outside the main town of Jiegu. In Tibetan culture, the dead are to be left out in the open for what are called sky burials, to be eaten by vultures, but monks said that there were too many dead to follow the tradition.

President Hu, who had cut short a trip to Latin America, promised to rebuild quickly during his tour of the region Sunday. According to a report by the New China News Agency, he visited a makeshift school in a tent and wrote in chalk on the blackboard, "There will be new schools! There will be new homes!"

Human rights advocates have been closely scrutinizing China's relief effort in an area that is more than 90% Tibetan.

"At the moment everybody is concerned with finding their families and their immediate concerns about the dead, but I can see that more of these issues are coming up," said Sam Wangyal, a London-based Tibetan whose family comes from near the quake-stricken area.

At issue is how Chinese authorities interact with Tibetan civilians and Buddhist clergy. There have been grumblings that Chinese soldiers garrisoned in Yushu were slow to respond, protecting their caches of weapons, and gasoline and banks, rather than helping to dig out victims in the critical hours just after the earthquake.

More than 500 Tibetan monks from nearby Sichuan province arrived within hours after the earthquake to volunteer for the rescue, and there were some tensions with Chinese soldiers about who was supposed to do what.

The Tibetan monks were also taking bodies of the dead to monasteries for prayers, which may have kept initial death toll reports lower.

"Certainly there were scattered incidents about which people expressed concern. I got a report that there was a misunderstanding between soldiers and monks and a lama was asked to go and mediate, but that story had a good ending," said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University.

barbara.demick @latimes.com

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