The Buddhist monks stood atop the jagged remains of a vocational school, struggling to move concrete slabs with pickax shovels and bare hands. Suddenly a cry went out: An arm, clearly lifeless, was poking through the debris.
But before the monks could finish their task, a group of Chinese soldiers who had been relaxing on the school grounds sprang to action. They put on their army caps, waved the monks away, and with a video camera for their unit rolling, quickly extricated the body of a young girl.
The monks stifled their rage and stood below, mumbling a Tibetan prayer for the dead.
“You won’t see the cameras while we are working,” said one of the monks, Ga Tsai, who with 200 others, had driven from their lamasery in Sichuan Province as soon as they heard about the quake.
“We want to save lives. They see this tragedy as an opportunity to make propaganda.”
Since a deadly earthquake nearly flattened this predominantly Tibetan city early Wednesday, killing at least 1,400 people, China’s leadership has treated the quake as a dual emergency — a humanitarian crisis almost three miles above sea level in remote Qinghai Province, and a fresh test of the Communist Party’s ability to keep a lid on dissent among restive Tibetans.
President Hu Jintao cut short a state visit to Brazil to fly home and supervise relief efforts, while Prime Minister Wen Jiabao postponed his own planned visit to Indonesia and came to the quake site promising that China’s Han majority would do whatever it could to aid the Tibetans.
The official state media prominently featured stories of grateful Tibetans receiving food and tents, and search and rescue specialists toiling to reach survivors even as they cope with altitude sickness.