The pure land of Tibet and the lothesome Han Chinese

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.


  1. Although my guess would be that Pearl’s access to China is more threatened by this piece than any Chinese or Tibetan acquaintances. 

  2. The tourists, not the custom. The custom is traditional. 


  1. “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?”

    Uh… yes? This has already been documented over and over again. You’re downplaying the degree of problems in Tibet- were police merely “annoying” when they opened fire on Tibetans observing the Dalai Lama’s birthday with a mountainside picnic this summer? Is the recent wave of arrests “annoying”? Chinese rule in Tibet isn’t simply Chinese rule in China but marginally worse, it’s an oppressive colonial-style occupation. You seem to understand that when you call Chinese rule “imperial,” but the rest of the article makes me wonder if you understand exactly how bad it is.

    As for Pearl, I’m not sure that this article neatly fits into Western Shangri-La myths like you think. But I’ll leave that for Pearl, should he/she feel like showing up.

  2. J,

    Why do you think Beijing is not running an authoritarian state elsewhere in China? Are the cops in Lhasa worse than those in Wukan or Xinjiang? I would guess they are, but the hook in this article is that if you go to Lhasa you may see Chinese cops practising cop stuff, which you can see everywhere in China. I really don’t think that promoting contempt for Han Chinese helps anything. Tibet is part of China in the sense that it is hard to imagine things getting better in Tibet much faster than they get better in the rest of China. Articles that encourage pearl-clutching among American elites don’t make anything better and may make them worse.

  3. Actually I think this article could have been far harder on the Han- tourists here merely seem to lack awareness of how Beijing rules Tibet, and the explicit racism towards ethnic minorities that has such a strong hold over China (portraying them as useless barbarian children, holding their grubby hands out for more money from the Han) doesn’t rear its ugly head here. Perhaps you find it impolite to mention these views, but given that the article itself only touches on the lighter end of the spectrum I find it hard to really see this as Han-bashing.

    The PRC is an authoritarian state in the rest of China, sure, but in Tibet and Xinjiang it’s not just an authoritarian state, but also a colonial power with more than just a vague whiff of ethnocracy. You WILL speak Chinese, you WILL salute the Chinese flag, you WILL sing songs about how grateful you are to the Party, you WILL walk around your town under the watchful eyes of Chinese People’s Armed Police shipped in from Henan or the Sichuan lowlands, you WILL NOT be given a passport due to your ethnicity. Documentation of things like this already exists in abundance; this article is explicitly about tourism as an arm of occupation, not another recap of how many police there are per tourist on the Barkhor or something.

    If I may, I believe that you’re adding things to the article that don’t really need to be there. You’re talking about pearl-clutching and American views on poverty tourism, which is interesting but somewhat irrelevant in an article about Chinese tourism in Tibet. White people don’t need to inject themselves into every issue. Sometimes it’s just about Tibet and China, and the crude Orientalist vision of Tibet held by some American college student don’t really figure into the issue in any meaningful way.

  4. Alan Baumler may be unaware of the extent to which China promotes Han tourism in Tibet as a part of its assimilation project. Recently a large Potala style theatre and museun complex was opened in Lhasa in order to perform a play about the coming of the Chinese princess Wencheng to Tibet in the 7th century, which China promotes as the beginning of the “natural and inevitable merging of nationalities” at a time when Tibet was indisputably independent. The propagandistic theme of the play is that Tibet has always been a part of China, even if only officially since the Yuan dynasty, but that China’s civilizing mission in Tibet began much earlier. The Wencheng theatre was built specifically for Chinese tourists so they can experience a sanitized, unthreatening version of Tibet and its history and people. Unlike foreign tourists, now less than 1% of the total, Han China tourists tend to want less personal contact with actual Tibetans and usually have less sympathy with them, or at least their political aspirations. The Chinese gpvernment has also constructed model Tibetan villages at Nyingchi, the lowest altitude part of the TAR, where Chinese tourists can experience a similiar sanitized version of Tibetan culture. So, Han tourism in Tibet is not just for the individual experience of the tourist, with the usual culturally destructive effects, but is promoted by the government for the purpose of assimilation of Tibet. There’s a reason why Sinology and Tibetology are different subjects and why few Sinologists really understand Tibet; its because China and Tibet are different cultures and, before 1950, different countries.

  5. Dear Anonymous,

    No, I was not aware of those specific facts, although they do not surprise me given what the Chinese government does in other minority areas and lots of governments do elsewhere.

    I was not clear enough in the original post, but I don’t approve of Beijing’s behaviour in Tibet. On the other hand, I really don’t think articles like the one I commented on add anything to the conversation other than making fun of Han Chinese. Tibet really is an example of what China does with Mongols and Tujia and others, and other states do things like this with other minorities. Tibet is different, but HOW?

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