Washington Monthly has an article up on Chinese tourism in Tibet. It is by Pearl Sydenstricker, who is a western (I assume) reporter who does not want to use their real name “in order to protect sources in China and Tibet.” That strikes me as a good idea, since the Chinese government tends not to like criticism.1 While I agree with a lot of what the article is saying, I found most of it deeply annoying. The general thrust of the article is that Chinese tourism is destroying Tibetan culture “Rather than threatening Tibetan monks with army troops, the government is smothering them with throngs of pushy tourists.” Han Chinese tourists have overrun Tibet, taking pictures inside temples, gawking at sacred rituals, and making a mockery of a culture. One could, of course, replace the words Han and Tibet here with American or German or Japanese and …well, anywhere really. I bet this is an old story with some interesting modern and Tibet-specific twists, but you won’t find that here.
Yes, Chinese tourists are flocking to Tibet, just like they are flocking to Shaoshan and Pyongyang and Paris. Yes, China is an imperial power in Tibet, and the Beijing government treats Tibetans even worse than it treats Han. Yes, lots of Han have deeply condescending attitudes towards the minority nationalities. On the other hand, the whole point of sending someone who knows Chinese (but apparently not Tibetan) to write an article is to get beyond lazy stereotypes.
The article opens with Chinese tourists witnessing a sky burial. How vile.2 It appears, however, that at least one monastery was o.k. with that. Was it just the money? Were they thinking that this would help win converts? There are lots of motives for letting people look at your culture beyond fear of getting shot, but the Tibetans are just as much cardboard cutouts here as the Han. While I doubt that Tibetans are raking in as much of the tourist cash as they would like they are getting some, and a lot of them want it, and the effect would really be no different if the tourist money came from culturally understanding American and Danish tourists rather than those loud Han with their IPhones. Cultural contact is a complex issue, and spitting on the Han does not really advance our understanding much. One of her informants is a Han Chinese.
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.
Sarah seems a little less self-aware than might be nice. So does Pearl. I have never actually had a ditzy Chinese female (they have to be female for examples like this) explain how she loved Tibetan Buddhism while having no understanding of her own status as part of an empire. I have seen lots of Americans like that though. The title of the piece is the Disneyficaiton of Tibet. If Americans can’t see themselves in the word “Disneyficaiton” they really need …something. My point is not that the article would be saved with a little “other people do it too” but that the whole frame is built around Tibetans as people who exist only for the better sort of Americans to lament their passing at the hands of the evil Han or (in Mexico) busloads of Americans who work at Wal-Mart.
The Han Chinese may leave melon seeds everywhere, but when they say the Tibetans are poor because they are lazy they are least do them the courtesy of thinking some Tibetans might like cars and money and modern medicine. Very few Chinese are likely to see Third World poverty as colourful the way so many Americans do. At least none of the Chinese analogize Tibetans directly to yaks like Pearl does. Is the Tibetan case different from the other cases of traditional cultures disappearing around the world, as capitalism changes everything and the young people leave for the big city? I would also like Pearl to give us a bit of Chinese context. Is the tourist-industrial complex growing quicker in Tibet than elsewhere in China? There is a massive growth in tourism all over China, and many of the same issues about access, preservation and tacky tourists present themselves there. I don’t doubt that police and paramilitary types are everywhere in Lhasa. Are they more common and more annoying then they are everywhere else in China? I would guess so, but no way to tell from this. Maybe someone should send a reporter to find out. For now all readers of Washington Monthly will get on this topic is some Han-bashing.
Pearl is fighting the good fight here, but this article is really not very helpful. I would be interested in knowing what she thinks of the reaction to the article. As you might expect, the comments are less then edifying.
This is so sickening – Chinese people are a disgrace. It is the lowest of all “civilizations” on earth.
Does Pearl agree with this? I would guess not, but when you write stuff that fits in with crude anti-Chinese stereotypes you will find yourself with a lot of unpleasant bedfellows.