Archival Scraps — Lhasa, October 2010

A fragment of an unfinished op-ed I wrote in the Tibet Autonomous Region last fall:

As October advances, leaves scatter into Lhasa streets full of pilgrims weaving through the occasional knot of Han Chinese and foreign tourists.  According to today’s Tibet Business Daily [西藏商报] , since the National Day holiday started on October 1, the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR/西藏自治区 ] welcomed 343,770 tourists, a large influx given the region’s relatively sparse population.  The figure, even if it is inflated (as Tibetan friends will assert), represents a 27.5% increase over last year’s official tourist figures from the same fall peak tourism week.  Hotels are going up all over the city, and by next year, a Shangri-La will redefine Lhasa’s luxury market.

(The kindred hotel, the Shangri-La in Chengdu, fills a segment of the riverine skyline outside of my apartment in Sichuan.  The hotel is downright sumptuous to walk through, inducing a kind of pleasurable guilt, sort of like listening to Debussy.)

What Tibetans think about the influx of tourists is a mixed bag.  Does the fact that tourists spent 1.3 million yuan in Tibet this past week help a bit?  Some will complain that Chinese are doing business illegally in Tibet, failing to register their cars and pay tax.  Today’s Lhasa Evening News [拉萨晚报] reports that eleven people were arrested in the past week for failing to register, and for having such illegal items as fake train tickets to Beijing and business cards.

(One never has such a strong sense of the power of the small-scale printing industry as in Tibet; all the photocopiers are in the hands of Han businesspeople and even Tibetan hotels need to take several hours to make photocopies because they first need a Han to sign off on the action.)

In the Dico’s on the edge of the Barkor (the traditional center of the city) and one of the few fast food restaurants, Chinese tourists talk in exaggerated drama about the relative merits of buying real estate in Hangzhou versus that of Shanghai.  Tibetan beggars walk in and are shooed away by the Tibetan employees clad in their Dico’s uniforms; the Muslim restaurant downstairs, by contrast, lets the beggars in freely, figuring that proximity to holy site should inure everyone to the practice.  At night, the Tibetan policemen retire into big white busses, smoking and playing with their cell phones, while posts throughout the darkening city remain manned by People’s Liberation Army troops, Han Chinese from Sichuan, cradling their machine guns.

Since October 3, the public security presence in Lhasa has been less prevalent in the area around the Jokhang Temple, the traditional Barkhor area where protests against Chinese governance have tended to break out.  An immense police station hides diagonally from the exit to the Johkang (newer and larger police stations are being built directly next to large monasteries, such as at Gyandan about an hour from Lhasa), but recently the PLA opened up a little “tea water and newspaper reading area” under the shade at the edge of the square, and a handful of off-duty PLA enjoy some shopping on a day off.

The contrast with spring 2008 was evident, but the scars of March and April of that year are still relatively fresh.  In March 2008, Lhasa exploded into violence, revealing deep ethnic and cultural rifts between Tibetans and the central government in Beijing.  The riots – and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent tour to Seattle – embarrassed China on the international stage and brought home once again the need for reforms on the plateau.   Since 2008, the CCP has made changes, but along the lines of the following formula: Emphasize economic development, increase the number of domestic tourists, reorganize nomads into villages, heighten the political repression, and glaze everything over with gaudy celebrations of an “ethnic unity” which is inevitably led by the Han majority.

The Chinese Communist Party continues to build in strength and consolidate state power in Tibet.  Education is a kind of battlefield of sorts; but is a new class of pro-Chinese Tibetans emerging to undermine the exile movement?

Perhaps this will all work.  A new railroad to Shigatze.  On the road to India, a huge PLA convoy comes from Chengdu.  Tibet is always useful for a reason other than itself.

The Dalai Lama dons mock horns for German photographers unknown, 2008

Robert Barnett, « Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet. Volume 2: The Calm before the Storm, 1951-1955. », China perpectives [Online] , 2009/3.

Susette Cooke, « Merging Tibetan Culture into the Chinese Economic Fast Lane », China perpectives [Online] , 50 | november- december 2003 .

1 Comment

  1. This is a great summary of some of the observations about Lhasa that could so easily be lost in the greater headlines….I agree that tourism as a form of profitability for indigenous groups does seem to be a mixed blessing. After all, this “curse of culture,” as I’m starting to see it, does provide many (Tibetan) locals the opportunity to rise into the middle class, which is sorely needed in light of the changing Tibetan economy that necessitates a change in services and shifting economic structures. Of course, in so many cases, it appears that “tourism,” especially when it relates to tourism, is a reflection of a poor economy in general: when there is no other economic base to support a culture, then the culture must become the economy. And in commoditizing a culture, one runs the high risk of minimizing it and defining it by that which is marketable. But now I’m just capstoning again.
    Other interesting anectdote: just the curfew in general. Lights out at 10 PM (including the Potala), and almost no Tibetans on the street around this time (almost all are either Han and both domestic and foreign tourists). If anyone knows for sure whether there actually is a curfew in effect for Tibetans in Lhasa then this would be interesting to know…
    Great point about the photocopiers, too, among others. I think back to my prior European history classes and the many times in which printing presses were smashed as a way to control/vanquish an opponent. The technology may now be running on dammed river water, but the tactics – and the sentiment behind them – seem to have changed very little.

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