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Tibetan Horse-Race Festival Draws Large Crowds, Undercover Police

A Tibetan horse race gets under way at a traditional festival in Gansu’s Machu county, Aug. 13, 2019.

A traditional Tibetan horse-race festival opened this week in northwestern China’s Gansu province with official approval, but with large numbers of plainclothes police officers deployed around the festival grounds to monitor the crowd and discourage anti-China protests, according to a local source.

The festival opened on Aug. 13 in the Kanlho (in Chinese, Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture’s Machu (Maqu) county and drew participants from areas across eastern Tibet’s historic Kham and Amdo regions, a local resident told RFA’s Tibetan Service.

“Participants in this festival have come from all over Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“At least 30,000 people are present, along with a huge security presence of Chinese police officers dressed out of uniform.”

The festival’s first day opened with a 200-meter horse race, with distances increasing over the next five days from 500 meters to 5,000 meters, RFA’s source said, adding, “And in the evenings after the races, there will be musical gatherings where singers from all these different areas will perform, drawing large crowds.”

More than a thousand small tents serving as restaurants and shops have been rented out on the festival grounds at rates of from 500 to 1,000 yuan (U.S. $71-142) per day, with play areas also provided for festival-goers’ children, the source said.

“The scale of this year’s horse-race festival in Machu is huge,” he said.

Traditional gatherings in Tibetan-populated regions of China have greatly increased in size in recent years, as thousands of Tibetans gather to assert their national identity in the face of Beijing’s cultural and political domination.

Though China in recent years has frequently allowed the holding of Tibetan festivals as a sign of stability and “progress” in Tibetan areas, security forces often monitor and sometimes close down events involving large crowds, fearing spontaneous protests against Chinese rule.

In Lithang (Litang) county in western China’s Sichuan province, a popular Tibetan horse race festival reopened in 2018 after being banned for 10 years following a public protest calling for the return of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to Tibet, sources told RFA in earlier reports.

(Reported by Kunsang Tenzin for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.)

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