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Authorities allow Tibetans in Lhasa to travel in region amid COVID wave

Chinese authorities have relaxed severe COVID-19 lockdowns in parts of the far-western Tibet region, allowing Tibetans residing temporarily in the regional capital Lhasa for work or other reasons to return to their hometowns beginning Monday, sources in the region said.

A wave of coronavirus infections hit the restive region in August, where China, wary about independence movements, has strengthened its governance in an effort to prevent frequent unrest of the repressed Tibetan minority group.

The latest move came days after hundreds of angry demonstrators took to the capital’s streets on Oct. 26-27 to protest harsh “zero COVID” measures, including lockdowns in place for about 80 days. During the lockdown, people complained of food shortages and poor conditions in mass quarantine facilities, RFA reported earlier.

Many of the demonstrators were Han Chinese migrant workers demanding permission from authorities to return to their homes in eastern China because they could not earn money amid the lockdown, city sources told RFA

The Chinese migrant protesters dispersed after authorities agreed to process applications for them to leave the Tibet Autonomous Region, while Tibetans from towns outside the capital area had to remain in place. 

Now authorities are allowing Tibetans living in Lhasa who are natives of the cities and towns of Shigatse, Kongpo, Lhoka, Nagchu, Chamdo and Ngari to return to their homes. But they can do so only after first getting in touch with their respective points of contact as set by regional authorities for “swift processing,” according to an official notice dated Oct. 31. They are prohibited from returning on their own.

Authorities will provide Tibetan migrant workers in the Lhasa area with transportation services to return to their hometowns once the regional office makes the contact points public, the notice said, and provided no further details. 

Despite the relaxation of COVID lockdowns in Lhasa and Shigatse, Tibet’s second-largest city with about 800,000 people, as of Oct. 29, the capital remains under lockdown for three more days, said sources from Tibet, adding that they did not know the reason behind the move which was not publicly announced.

Tibetan sources indicated that Chinese government officials treated Tibetans differently when it came to giving them permission to leave Tibet for other places in China, noting that authorities accommodated Chinese migrant workers who agitated against the lockdown.

“Tibetans who study in high schools and universities in mainland China were supposedly planning to visit China three months ago under special circumstances, but that didn’t happen,” said the source, who declined to be named for safety reasons.  

As of Monday, Tibet recorded 18,653 confirmed coronavirus cases in the region of roughly 3.65 million people, according to the latest Chinese government census data. 

Two new asymptomatic COVID-19 infections have been found in Lhasa in the last 24 hours, and 33 asymptomatic cases have been detected in the northern region of neighboring Qinghai province on Oct. 29, according to an official Chinese announcement.

Local authorities in Xining, capital of Qinghai province near the Tibetan Plateau, reported 70 new COVID-19 infections on Oct. 28.

Translated by Tashi Wangchuk for RFA Tibetan. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.