By Natalie Thomas
LHASA, China (Reuters) - Once the site of violent clashes between Tibetans and Chinese security forces, the ancient area of Barkhor in the Tibetan capital has become one of the safest places in China, officials say, thanks in part to an on-the-ground surveillance network.
Guard posts erected among shops and in courtyards around the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa watch the comings and goings of residents. The posts are manned by locals who are selected by the residents' management committee, though some appeared to be unstaffed. At night, the doors to the courtyards are locked, residents say.
Managing the remote Himalayan region of Tibet remains a difficult issue for China, which has struggled with decades of often violent unrest in protest at Chinese rule, which started when Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950.
The government's strategy, which was formally rolled out across the region in November 2014, is a "grid management" surveillance system aimed at managing society "without gaps, without blind spots, without blanks," according to state media.
"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.
Earlier this month, Reuters reporters, along with a small group of journalists, were granted a rare visit to the region on a highly choreographed official tour. Chinese authorities restrict access for foreign journalists to Tibet, making independent assessments of the situation difficult.
For the Han Chinese, many of whom have moved to Lhasa in recent years, the scheme is popular.
"If there's anyone suspicious entering the courtyard, then they know," said Shou Tianjiang, a Barkhor resident, referring to the ramshackle guard post erected in the center of the courtyard where he rents a room for his sock business.
The changes that have transformed Lhasa are evident. Five years ago when Reuters was last allowed access to the Tibetan capital, squads of paramilitary officers patrolled the streets and armored personnel carriers were stationed on most roads. But the paramilitary presence was not visible on the visit this November.
Activists say, however, that the real aim of the program is to maintain absolute control over the Tibetan population. Beijing reviles exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist.
"They want to detect and root out any sentiment that runs counter to the party state," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet.
Rights groups say China has violently tried to stamp out religious freedom and culture in Tibet. China rejects the criticism, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.
(Editing by Sui-Lee Wee and Nick Macfie)