You are here

The Turnaround in China’s Tibet Policy: Will Tourism Boost Benefit Tibetans?

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • July 17, 2012

    The recent announcement by the Chinese government to set up a $30 billion tourism project in Tibet came as a surprise for ardent Tibet watchers. The turnaround in China’s policy to open Tibet to tourists and thereby to the world is a major departure from its policy of keeping Tibet ‘in closed doors’. In fact, even today Tibet is closed to foreigners and diplomats stationed in China. This ban has been necessitated by the need to keep a lid on simmering discontent in Tibet after as many as 45 self immolations have brought Tibet into world focus. The immolations, largely by Tibetan monks and nuns, are aimed at drawing attention to religious persecution and denial of religious and cultural freedom by Chinese to Tibetans in and around Tibet. What has caused this dramatic turnaround in China’s Tibet policy? Why has China decided to ‘open up’ Tibet?

    The Tourism Project

    The CNY 30 billion tourism project aims at creating a ‘living museum’ of Tibetan culture, a theme park, a commercial district and a residential area covering 800 hectares, barely 2 kilometers from the heart of Lhasa. The project is expected to be completed in 3-5 years in phases. The theme park is dedicated to the historical wedding of Princess Wencheng, the 16 year old daughter of Emperor Li Shinmin of the Tang Dynasty, to King Songsten Gampo, the ruler of Tibet in the 7th century. Visitors will be offered outdoor performances of “Princess Wencheng” and other educational and entertainment facilities. In addition, the project includes the construction of an ‘Art city’ for Tibetan art and handicraft and a ‘Folk city’ where tourists will get a glimpse of local life and buy folk goods.1

    Coming on the heels of another announcement of increasing passenger train services to Lhasa from other Chinese cities, the policy has given a boost to the famed Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) Company. A spokesman of the company announced daily train services from Guangzhou to Lhasa from 9 July 2012, making this the seventh city that runs daily train services to Lhasa. The QTR is a major tourist attraction itself and a popular means of transportation to Tibet. Since 2006, it has ferried 52.76 million tourists to Tibet, a number that is increasing annually at the rate of 10 per cent. The first quarter of 2012 alone has seen a year on year surge of 23.7 per cent tourist arrivals, mostly domestic tourists, as Tibet continues to be out of bounds for foreigners.2 In 2011, 8.7 million tourists visited Tibet generating revenue of USD 1.5 billion. With five commercial airports and three highways in Tibet, China sees a vast opportunity in developing tourism in Tibet. This year China expects to generate CNY 12 billion from 10 million tourists in Tibet.3

    But that is not all. China plans to develop the picturesque Nyingchi prefecture, opposite Arunachal Pradesh, by injecting CNY 400 million in the construction of 22 ‘ well off model villages’. Each village will be provided CNY 4.5 million to local residents to construct and provide hotel services to tourists over the next three years. The Guangdong Provincial government is a partner in this project and will be providing the funds for developing these facilities in four counties of the Nyingchi prefecture. In an attempt to spur development in the region, China has directed state owned banks to lend credit to medium and small businesses, disadvantaged groups and infrastructure and development projects in rural areas. To date, almost $ 8.2 billion has been disbursed as loans in Tibet by state owned banks.4 Authorities see tourism as a crucial revenue earner. In just three months of 2012, revenue rose 27.9 per cent to reach CNY 229 million. This huge investment aims at attracting 15 million tourists by 2015 and generating CNY 18 billion in a region that has a population of barely 3 million.5

    Economics alone has not been the driver of this policy decision. According to Saibal Dasgupta, “The move reveals the government's determination to enlarge the tourism industry to involve Tibetan youngsters in business and keep them away from politics. China is also keen to demonstrate the efforts it has made to develop the Tibetan region as a means to counter the campaign by the pro-Dalai Lama group.”6 The huge economic boom that tourism is likely to bring to Tibet will also ‘open’ the progressive Tibet to the world and bear testimony to the growth and development of Tibet.

    So what does all this mean for the Tibetans in Tibet?

    The tourist boom will undoubtedly raise the standard of living of all people living in Tibet. But will this benefit Tibetans? As early as 1990, Asia Watch had stated in its report that the “majority of the population in Lhasa is clearly Chinese”. The report adds, “in essence, the authorities appear to be applying a discriminatory policy barring Tibetans from coming to Lhasa, while placing no restriction whatever on Chinese migration into the city……a professionally capable and strategically placed Chinese population seems to be the key element in the Chinese government’s plans for the integrated and military development in Tibet.”7 Today, the hotel business, the taxis in Lhasa and the tourist guides are controlled and run by Han Chinese.8 Tibetans are excluded from participation in these critical subsets of the tourism business. Statistics from the Tibet Statistical yearbook lend credibility to the argument that this boom is not likely to improve the lot of the Tibetans as 76.2 per cent of the population is rural largely Tibetan.9 When we look at business statistics, over a block of a decade (2000-2009) sales in State owned and individual (largely Han owned in cities) enterprises multiplied five times, but `others`- smaller/household businesses owned by the common people - just trebled over the same period.10 Large businesses like wholesale and retail, hotels, restaurants, etc. multiplied four times over the last decade (2000-2009) but `others`- small business, largely household and small shops – stagnated.11 It may be argued that, overall, Tibet has benefited but the fruits have not trickled down to the rural population of Tibet. To expect a change in the next decade in the lot of the majority of Tibetans is therefore unlikely.

    The other issue is about religion. Today, the vast majority of tourists visiting Lhasa are treated to a visit to Jokhang temple and the Potala Palace which are the most prominent places of tourist interest. Both are symbols of Buddhist religion and the Dalai Lama. During a recent visit to China, I was surprised to see a very large number of young Chinese offering prayers at Buddhist shrines. Western, foreign and even domestic tourists are largely drawn to symbols of the Dalai Lama and Buddhism during their visit to Tibet. The theme parks, the commercial development and the ‘Swiss chalet’ concept in Nyingchi attempt to draw attention away from these established icons of Tibet. One may argue that the self immolations and the repressive ‘Management Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism’ issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) may cast a shadow on the Chinese assertions of full and total religious freedom in Tibet. But the Chinese state has been able to exercise full control in implementing these measures in Tibet, justified by the fact that almost 43 out of the 45 self-immolations have occurred outside Tibet, mostly in the Sichuan province. The intention, therefore, is to expose tourists to minimal religion and religious icons and, by extension, obscure the issue of religious persecution and freedom in Tibet.

    Tibet has great historical and cultural traditions. The last 60 years have seen a concerted attempt to erode them. Institutions of learning, monasteries, and temples have either been desecrated, looted or simply burnt. China aims at selectively opening only that part of Tibetan culture and history to the world that it finds acceptable to the Han people. The “Princess Wencheng”, for example, is just one insignificant event in Tibetan history. The Manchus, who conquered China and established the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, embraced Buddhism much like the Mongols who had earlier ruled over China. In fact, the Dalai Lama, who had by then become the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, agreed to become the spiritual guide of the Manchu emperor and accepted patronage and protection in exchange. This "priest-patron" relationship, which the Dalai Lama also maintained with numerous Mongol Khans and Tibetan nobles, was an important historical part of Tibetan-Chinese history. Some powerful Manchu emperors like Kangxi, Yong Zhen and Qianlong sent imperial troops into Tibet four times to protect the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people from foreign invasion or internal unrest. It was these expeditions that provided them with influence in Tibet. But this part of Tibetan history is unlikely to be celebrated in the theme parks, ‘art city’ or ‘folk city’ proposed by the Chinese government. In time, China intends to change the perception of the younger generation about Tibet and distort the traditional culture and history of Tibet, possibly with Chinese characteristics.

    The biggest payoff that China is likely to gain from increased tourism is strategic. The gestation period of 3-5 years to implement this tourism project gives China sufficient time to complete several projects linked to Tibet that improve connectivity, trade and commerce. The Freedom Highway from Nepal will open Nepal for trade and access to tourists from Nepal and India. The extension of the QTR to Shigatse and Nyingchi will give access to tourists from Yunnan and Sichuan to Lhasa. At the same time, the Chongqing-Lhasa railway (East-West link) will completely transform the Tibetan countryside and ultimately fully integrate Tibet with mainland China.

    In conclusion, the policy of opening Tibet to the world appears to be well thought through. It clearly indicates a measure of confidence that China has in exercising control over Tibet. It also reflects on the transformation that China has brought about in Tibet and Tibetan society over the last few decades. China truly believes that it is ready to fully integrate and assimilate Tibet into the mainland despite antagonism and adverse international opinion.