Ten Miles Square

January/ February 2014 The Disneyfication of Tibet

How tourism has become a tool of occupation.

By Pearl Sydenstricker

On a train, I struck up a conversation with a twenty-six-year-old Han Chinese backpacker from the coastal provincial capital city of Jinan, who goes by the English name of Sarah. I said that Lhasa feels uptight. “Oh—you mean the military and police?” She laughed and then told me, as if explaining a very simple idea to a child, “We feel very relaxed here. It’s a very safe city. If we feel cheated by a vendor, we can call a hotline and they tend to be on our side.” Sarah wore a pink scarf with Tibetan designs; prayer beards encircled both of her wrists. “I’m a Buddhist,” she said proudly. “It’s in the heart.”

She explained the military presence: “Have you heard of Tibetan independence? People wanted to split the country and oppose the unification of the motherland. We really didn’t like that.” During her weeklong trip to Tibet, Sarah stayed in a Han-run hostel and ate Chinese food for all but two of her meals.

Tibetan tour guides have told me that Han Chinese tourists employ Han guides, if they have guides at all. The state-led development of the tourism industry seems to benefit Han people more than Tibetans, and it comes with a major dose of propaganda. In fact, while tourism is surging, Tibetan hotel owners are losing business, because their base was foreign tourists. The newest tourist attraction this year in Lhasa is a live-action reenactment of the story of Princess Wencheng, the Chinese wife of a Tibetan emperor, a staple of government propaganda. The show is choreographed by director Zhang Yimou in a style similar to that of his opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Chinese propaganda depicts Tibetans as eternally cheerful, singing and dancing with gratitude that peaks every year on March 28, “Serfs Emancipation Day.” I have seen a new poster on display in cities all over the country, including in Lhasa and Beijing, showing three women with long braids and headdresses, kneeling and smiling. “Sing a mountain song for the Party to hear,” it reads, with the word “Party” highlighted in a big, red font.

Most Tibetans are treated like political prisoners, denied passports to leave the country legally. A decade ago, Tibetans fled anyway. The young and strong crossed the Himalayas by foot, usually in winter when the snow was packed and firm. Today few dare; border guards are allowed to shoot on sight. Due to China’s influence in the entire region, Tibetans trying to escape via Nepal are sometimes caught and turned over to Chinese police.

To illustrate the situation, one Tibetan small businessman points to the palm of his hand: the surrounding countries are like fingers under the palm’s control, he says. Tibetans who left the country in the 1990s tell me they regret returning. Now it’s impossible to get out, they say.

One Tibetan asks me, “If China is one big family, as the propaganda goes, what kind of father needs surveillance cameras in every room?” Outside military com-pounds, machine-gun-armed sentries stand in bulletproof glass boxes. It’s a theatrical flourish, like some of the police stations in the Old Quarter displaying their weapons—Tasers, nightsticks, and other batons of various shapes—right in the windows. “The police are needed because the Dalai Lama keeps making trouble,” one Han traveler told me on a train.

More than 120 Tibetans have immolated themselves in protest of the Chinese government in the past year and a half. In Sichuan, young monks showed me pictures of two friends of theirs, posing in front of backdrops of European buildings and, dressed in hoodies, beside cutouts of American basketball stars. Then, last winter, the friends drank gasoline and blew themselves up together, sending up black plumes of smoke visible across the valley, herders told me. “Why did they do it?” I ask the young monks. “I can’t express it in Chinese,” one tells me, but then he writes a note in Tibetan: “It goes without saying, without any doubt that these two men, Konchog Oeser and Lobsang Dawa, hoped from the depths of their hearts for both His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] and His Holiness Kirti Rinpoche especially to take over leadership for the entire Greater Tibet … to make Tibetan religion and culture flourish, leading to pure freedom not in words but in reality.”

Among Chinese tourists, sympathy for Tibetans seems lacking. “[Tibetans] don’t value human life,” says a sixty-two-year-old schoolteacher visiting from Beijing. I met her near a large visitor center and freshly paved parking lot, at the entrance to the Labrang Monastery in Gansu. Wearing a camouflage military-style hat, she points to yak butter sculptures as evidence of the “diversity of Chinese culture.” As we walk around the rugged, whitewashed walls of the labyrinthine complex, she pulls monks away from their work and prayers, insisting that they spend ten minutes posing with her for photos. In one picture, she puts her hand on the back of her head, with her elbow out. “They don’t appreciate what the government has given them,” she says. “And now we’re even paying their salaries.” (In fact, Communist Party officials are permanently stationed inside monasteries such as Labrang to control their finances.) She lectures to me loudly over the hum of prayer in the meeting hall, until a distressed monk shoos her out the door. She turns around to snap his picture.

Pearl Sydenstricker is a pen name used by a reporter, who has asked to write anonymously in order to protect sources in China and Tibet.

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