Ten Miles Square

January/ February 2014 The Disneyfication of Tibet

How tourism has become a tool of occupation.

By Pearl Sydenstricker


Strike a pose: Han Chinese tourists have overrun Tibet, taking pictures inside temples, gawking at sacred rituals, and making a mockery of a culture.

High on a mountain in eastern Tibet is a platform where corpses are fed to vultures. It’s a dizzying slope carpeted in grass, with a web of sun-bleached prayer flags fluttering overhead. Traditional Tibetan “sky burials” ritualize nature’s reclamation of human life, rather than denying it. Instead of neatly cremating or putting the body into a box, protectively, Tibetans feed their dead, bite by bite, to a flock of massive, squawking birds. Now the Chinese government has made this sacred rite into a $5 show for Han Chinese tourists.

The vultures are always the first to arrive, well before the monks and morticians. After the body is unbundled, the birds move in and start with the eyes and the easy bits—fingers, ears, toes. The morticians are there with mallets and hatchets to cut the body into bite-sized pieces, to ensure that nothing is left behind. It’s hard to watch, and, understandably, it’s not like a funeral, in that family members and friends do not attend. The only Tibetans here are a monk saying prayers, the morticians, and, of course, the body.

But there are also two dozen tourists, all from China, here to gawk. Encouraged by the Chinese government, they’ve arrived in 4WDs emblazoned with the emblems and flags of an off-roading club. The burial goes on amid titters of disbelief and the whirrs and clicks of cameras and iPhones recording the event for online shares back home.

The $5 tickets to the show come with a map to the site. If there’s any question about who is selling them, the monastery down below has surrendered to the government. Locals tell me there was a feud in town between followers of this monastery, which they say had sold out, and the other monastery in town, which tries, impossibly, to maintain a sliver of independence. (You can guess which one has five gilded roofs and which has roofing held down by rocks.) Regardless, both are now deluged with tourists. The monastic town around them has doubled in size in two years. Strips of new hotels are under construction, spurred by cheap loans from the Chinese government, one non-Tibetan hotel owner tells me.

It’s government policy: tourism is an officially designated “pillar of the economy” in Tibet. The goal is to attract fifteen million tourists a year by 2015 in the so-called “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” which has a population of only three million. In the first half of 2013, tourist visits to Lhasa surged by 36 percent, according to state media. Rather than threatening Tibetan monks with army troops, the government is smothering them with throngs of pushy tourists, who show their sympathies with their fashion statements: green camouflage is in. On recent summer and autumn days, they wore camo hats, camo hoodies, and even camo leggings, as if each were playing a part in the paramilitary.

In the Chinese media, Tibetans are always portrayed as the poor beneficiaries of Chinese aid. Their costumes are funny, their cultural beliefs hopelessly “backward,” tourists tell me. One villager I speak with in Hebei, thousands of miles away, complains that his taxes are going for charity for this distant group. The government seems to have drawn up a caricature—somewhat like Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens”—depicting Tibetans as lazy. No surprise, then, that Han Chinese carry on loud cell phone conversations in prayer halls and walk counterclockwise against the flow of pilgrims, deliberately interrupting these “superstitious” rituals. As I walk through the Barkhor, the newly reconstructed “Old Quarter” of Lhasa—one of the holiest sites and top tourist destinations in all of Tibet—armored vehicles rumble past souvenir stands. I count forty-seven police stations in half a square mile, all of them clearly marked on the tourist maps set up in the streets, like at Disneyland. Tourists may fulfill their role in the soft-power paramilitary, but it’s no secret that the real paramilitary is here too. Wherever I go, I see more bunkers than schools. Police with riot shields march in formation in the streets. Military drills echo across towns at dawn. Even one young person I assume to be a backpacker volunteers to me that he is actually an officer from the Public Security headquarters in Beijing. “Safety First,” or “Security First,” is a ubiquitous propaganda slogan. It’s on roadside billboards and massive TV screens with embedded loudspeakers playing People’s Liberation Army melodramas. It’s on school uniforms. It’s emblazoned on massive new police stations and shimmering government buildings around Llasa. One young Tibetan woman whom I befriend tells me that the slogan “Security First” has become “the local joke.”

While Han Chinese enjoy new freedom to travel, Tibetans are being forcibly settled. For the purpose of control and surveillance, nomads are forced to live in substandard housing, where the Chinese flag flies on every roof. Every Tibetan household is also required to put up a framed portrait of the past four leaders of China, their faces superimposed in the clouds over an image of happy Tibetans dancing in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese are even trying to force the yaks to settle in one place. (In the countryside of Gansu, a fifty-seven-hour drive from Llasa, I see a factory farm recently built for yaks, with billboards, though no yaks are in it.)

It has become more difficult for Tibetans to move around, much less leave the country. Their Tibetan ethnicity is written on their ID cards, which police inspect at checkpoints outside Lhasa and at the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It is difficult for most Tibetans to enter Lhasa at all, especially the pilgrims who once prostrated their way to the religious capital. Tibetans fear becoming a minority in Lhasa itself, because the government encourages so many Han people to settle in the area, offering promotions and new positions in the bureaucracy, most of which are available only to Han Chinese.

The government should get credit for pumping money into Tibet, but locals tell me much of it goes toward graft. (The bigger and grander the construction project, the more room for kickbacks.) The government recently “renovated” the Barkhor. “The central Barkhor used to be … bustling with businesses,” said one CCTV newscaster recently, in a program meant for foreigners. “Today it has a completely different look. All of the vendors have been relocated nearby, leaving more spacious walkways for pilgrims and visitors,” he said with a grand sweeping gesture. “The project will make Barkhor a high-end tourist destination.”

As I circle the Barkhor one night with elderly pilgrims and a few young people doing prostrations, we begin to hear the violent grunts of police practicing hand-to-hand combat. Rounding a corner next to one of the holiest temples in all of Tibet, we see them in all black, punching and stabbing invisible opponents. One young boy in a school uniform stands in front of them, stunned, until a police car screeches to a stop behind him and he meanders away. A Chinese backpacker is watching too, until his friend calls him away: “You’re not allowed to watch that!”

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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