For anyone selfish or unthinking enough to take a vacation to Lhasa its likely they will join a tour to Sera Monastery just north of the Tibetan capital. There they can see monks enjoying Buddhist debate, marvel at the traditional architecture and absorb the peaceful environs at which Buddhism is flourishing.
Meanwhile behind that staged show of supposed cultural freedom a darker reality exists for Tibetans, although you would not come into contact with that during your tightly controlled and monitored time at Sera.
Image: Eric Baculinao
We wonder how such tourists would feel about their Tibet trip had they been in attendance at a March 13 meeting in Sera during which a panel of Tibetan collaborators (Lhakpa Tsering ‘Lhasa, Monastery Management Committee Director’, Tsetan Dorje, ‘Manager Sera monastery’ and Jampa Kelsang, ‘Media and Education Committee Director’ Sera Monastery) addressed some three hundred monks. Insisting that they should “… feel grateful to the Chinese government and show their loyalty to the nation by obeying the country’s laws,”.
Image: Tsering Woeser
Surrounded by Chinese paramilitary police, security officials and ‘management’ staff the monks were ordered to stand against what was described as ‘sepratism’. They were also warned of a series of prohibitions regarding online activity, including posting any information the regime considers sensitive.
Image: Tsering Woeser
The meeting concluded with an exultation ‘re-pay China’s generosity in Tibet and demonstrate loyalty to Beijing and love for the top leadership of China’s ruling Communist Party.’.
Sera monastery is in truth no longer a center for Buddhist learning, like monasteries across Tibet it is an indoctrination facility, placed under a suffocating control by the thought-police of the Chinese regime.
Image: Tsering Woeser
It also has another function, one that exploits the wonderment, gullibility and ignorance of those who travel to Lhasa for an exotic vacation. It’s calculated and tightly controlled illusion of a thriving Tibetan Buddhist culture is an important propaganda tool to manipulate and deceive.
We’ve long taken the position that tourism to occupied Tibet serves the interests of the China’s regime and bank-balances of Chinese dominated tourist businesses. Those seeking the ‘spiritual experience’ of visiting Tibet are exploited, manipulated and suffocatingly controlled by the Chinese authorities. What they are allowed to see is an ersatz version of Tibetan culture, engineered by the same regime which, away from the stage-managed tourist hotspots, wages a genocidal assault upon Tibetan national and cultural identity.
Our just criticism and opposition on this issue occasionally results in weak responses from those who attempt to justify tourism to Tibet by claiming their presence enables information on the plight of Tibetans to reach the wider world. This reasoning held some credibility in the late 1980s and 1990s but no longer. With the instant access of the internet (informed by the knowledge, testimony, courage and sacrifices of Tibetans inside Tibet) the dire circumstances endured by Tibet’s people is freely available, 24/7 via a few taps of a mobile device or laptop.
The fact is that travellers are lead by a leash along well worn and safe tourist routes, constantly monitored, meeting approved Tibetans and exposed to China’s distorted version of Tibetan culture. They do not see the torture centers, visit forced labor camps, or witness the misery of Tibetans forced into concentration settlements.
Of course that inconvenient reality is not what tourists to Tibet are paying top dollars for. They come for the illusion of a Buddhist Shangri-la, which the Chinese tyranny is more than happy to fabricate, while milking them as cash-cows and promoting its propaganda narrative.
Does your heart break with sympathy for those whose dollar funds enable them to fly off to an exotic vacation in occupied Tibet, who are over the next few weeks being denied tourist visas by the Chinese regime? March is that time in the political calendar of Tibet which marks the Lhasa Uprising of 1959 and a number of subsequent protests against illegal Chinese rule. Well we cannot have those gullible tourists being exposed to the sights and sounds of Tibetans daring to dissent against Chinese tyranny. Best a travel ban is applied. But hey folks! It will be lifted on April 1, a day dedicated to fools! So if you still want to be exploited, deceived and monitored in Lhasa or some other Tibetan location then get your applications in now. You can even tell yourself that you’ve visited Tibet, when in reality you have traveled to the world’s largest open-prison, in which Tibetan culture is being eradicated and its people violently oppressed. Happy holiday!
Just how desperate China is to convince itself and no doubt the world of the supposed legitimacy of its claims over Tibet was revealed by last years announcement to invest some 4.7 billion dollars into a propaganda theme park, to be constructed outside Lhasa, that will feature the story of a Chinese Princess who married the 7th Century Tibetan king, Songsten Gampo. Meanwhile August 1, 2013, provocatively facing the deserted former palace of the Dalai Lama a dramatic fabrication of that history opens with the aim of peddling China’s bogus claims over Tibet but also with an eye on milking uncritical and unknowing tourists.
According to a report from the International Campaign for Tibet“The Princess Wencheng spectacle will be staged with a cast of nearly 600 on a stage nearly 100 metres long, in a fake Potala Palace that faces the real Potala, former home of the Dalai Lama. It will be performed at a time when Lhasa is under military lock-down with snipers visible on rooftops and its citizens subject to intense surveillance and ideological campaigns.
The drama, which will be re-enacted 180 times annually according to the Chinese official media, is a state-scripted narrative in which the Chinese, embodied by Princess Wencheng of the 7th century, ‘civilise’ the Tibetans and bring harmony to Tibet.” Source
An ancient alliance which Beijing’s propaganda machine has for years insisted is ‘proof’ of Chinese rule over Tibet and exploits to claim a supposed ‘ethnic’ unity between Tibetans and their Chinese neighbors.. Apart from serving as gut-wrenching theater to peddle its re-write of Tibet’s actual history it will satisfy that other key feature of China’s occupation of Tibet, profiting from tourism, which the Chinese leadership has recognized as providing not only an economic opportunity to exploit foreign tourists, but as a political tool to support its ideological war concerning Tibet. We can expect a grotesque parade of costumed lies, an ersatz version of Tibetan culture, thoroughly sterilized and approved by China’s occupying regime. Meanwhile beyond the security barriers of the park Tibet’s authentic culture will continue to be eroded and assimilated by the onslaught of Chinese colonization, a sort of ‘final solution’ that has as a goal the eradication of Tibetan national identity. Imagine the Khymer Rouge engaged in the wholesale destruction of Cambodian society, announcing to the world’s media the building of a tourist attraction celebrating Cambodia’s Buddhist culture and we can begin to approach the imperialist insanity that lies behind China’s intentions.
However let us return to the central feature of this macabre perversion, Princess Wencheng and China’s assertion that due to her marriage with a Tibetan king a legitimacy was established regarding Chinese claims on Tibet. To do so however we may benefit from beginning not in 7th Century Tibet but medieval France and its rival England, and a time equally marked by power politics and alliances. It is around the year 1122 and Éléonore de Guyenne was born, she was to become one of the most powerful and richest women in Europe, receiving the title Duchess of Aquitaine and was to be queen consort of France (1137–1152) and of England (1154–1189). Eleanor of Aquitane, as English historians recorded her name, married on May 18 1152 her cousin, Henry Plantagent, who was to become two years later the King of England. The marriage lasted some thirteen years during which she bore Henry eight children: five sons, three of whom would become kings, and three daughters. Clearly a dynastic alliance and important to note one involving family members, all of whom were French, including England’s ruler!
If we apply China’s distorted reasoning that asserts legitimacy over Tibet, on the basis of ancient allegiances and marriage, then we must now consider that France could lay claim to the United Kingdom due to the historical truth of Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II of England! Perhaps Britain could insist that it occupied Ireland on the grounds of supposed treaties reached with Irish Kings over 800 years ago, or maybe attempt to re-colonize the United States by arguing that it was once part of (as China describes its Empire) the ‘one big Motherland’! Such claims are a nonsense and would leave international opinion entirely dumbfounded, yet the world sadly remains largely silent on equally absurd assertions made by China concerning Tibet. Indeed the media has been a willing conduit in reporting China’s distortions and recently widely reported China’s announcement to build this propaganda park, minus any critique.
Had any correspondent of worth bothered to investigate they would soon have discovered that aside from cashing in on tourism, this venue has clear political objectives in enforcing a propaganda illusion of Tibet, its culture and history, hence the prominence being given to Princess Wencheng. Let’s take a closer look at her appearance in Tibetan history. It is little known that in the 7th Century ACE, a period when Islam arises in Arabia, the Tang Dynasty rules in China and Anglo-Saxon kings rule in England, Tibet possessed a huge Empire under the reign of the Tibetan King, Songtsen Gampo. It’s territory stretched northwards towards East Turkestan (now under Chinese occupation and renamed Xinjiang) and Westwards into Central Asia and to the East in regions of China itself. The Tibetan ruler is credited with assisting the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet, although the Chinese often assert that it reached Tibet from China, citing the fact Songsten Gampo’s wife, Princess Wencheng brought with her a Buddha which is till today venerated by Tibetans. What China’s propagandists fail to mention however is that this Chinese princess was presented to the Tibetan King as a tribute following a number of Tibetan conquests against China. Nor do they mention that Songsten Gampo had a number of other wives, including a wife from Nepal, who had arrived some years before Princess Wencheng and who had also brought an image of the Buddha. The famous Jo-Khang temple in Lhasa was constructed by Nepali princes Brikuti Devi, another fact China’s theme park will be keen to ignore, along with the great debate that took place in around 792 in which Indian Buddhist masters defeated Chinese teachers, confirming the India basis of Tibetan Buddhism. Once again if we apply the fact-free thinking that China uses to support its claims over Tibet, by re-writing he facts surrounding Princess Wencheng, then surely Nepal, whose Princess had been married to the Tibetan King for some years before China dispatched its ‘tribute’, can now claim that Tibet is part of Nepal!
We can be sure that historical truth will play little part in the grotesque displays that will feature at the planned theme park, its purpose is about illusion, deception and asserting as truth what in reality is a cynical fabrication that Tibet is a part of China and that Tibetan culture is thriving under Chinese rule. Such disinformation is already being uncritically consumed by foreign tourists and an international media whose reportage bears a troubling similarity to China’s official propaganda. This recent announcement looks set to continue that trend and will be a gross distortion of Tibet, its people, history and culture, but then we have to ask ourselves how many tourists give a damn? A reaction China is un-sleeping in its efforts to manipulate.
The equation is simple, visiting Tibet as a tourist does not in any meaningful way benefit the Tibetan people, it may well be a wonderfully exotic personal experience, one that draws the admiring attention of friends and family, but it does not service Tibet or its culture.
There was a time when those considering a trip to the region could ease any prangs of conscience, about entering a nation under oppressive occupation, by drawing comfort from the views of the Dalai Lama, who has advocated tourism to Tibet, on the basis that people could see for themselves the situation. That may well have had some arguable credence in the late 1980s and 1990s when there was less global awareness and understanding of the situation inside Tibet. Since that period however the nature and degree of cultural erosion and suppression waged upon Tibet has become common knowledge, the Internet, mobile technology, and the courageous efforts of Tibetans have enabled a fuller exposure of life inside ‘Prison-Tibet’. News of political protests, arrests, instances of torture, arrest and killings are reported almost immediately, freely accessible to anyone with access to a computer.
Today those making the journey to Tibet do so in full knowledge that they are visiting a culture facing annihilation, a people denied civil, political and religious freedoms and exposed to a harrowing range of human rights abuses, including the forcible sterilization of Tibetan women. Of course not all visiting Tibet are moved by issues of human rights and justice for Tibetans, the motivation is more based upon personal gratification, a chance to experience the mysterious and satisfy some sense of the curious. All understandable qualities of course, however it’s the human and political context that operates inside Tibet which raise serious questions as to the ethics of visiting a nation under the draconian grip of a totalitarian regime. Would those happy to photograph Tibetans in prostration in front of the Jokhang in Lhasa have been comfortable with a guided tour of Cape Town during the height of Apartheid in South Africa?
Yet a powerful form of myopia appears to descend upon those who choose to see Tibet, not as a region under oppressive siege, but as an ultimate ‘Shangri-la’ destination, seems the mountains and turquoise skies disable any sense of ethical responsibility. Apart from this worrying abdication of moral awareness, in pursuit of personal adventure and satisfaction, those who visit Tibet should be aware that in so doing they are supporting an increasingly dominant Chinese presence. While there may be limited and isolated financial gain for a few Tibetans, the overwhelming beneficiary are those Chinese businesses which proliferate in the Tibetan capital and other towns such as Shigatse. Nearly all related enterprises, transport, tour-services, hotels and restaurants are Chinese controlled or owned, the tourist dollar misses ordinary Tibetans almost entirely and finances those who exploit Tibetan culture for profit.
The tourist to Tibet also furnishes the communist Chinese regime with political support, by choosing to visit she or he is declaring that they are insufficiently concerned with human rights issues or the occupation of Tibet to deter them. Moreover, in agreeing and complying to the suffocating constraints imposed upon visitors they are in effect endorsing China’s control over Tibet. Yet by conforming to such controls they expose themselves to a stage-managed propaganda view of Tibet, one carefully engineered to plant the thought that all is well under Chinese occupation. Take the comments of Mark Niew, Australian freelance writer, whose tourist trip was eagerly exploited by China’s Ministry of Propaganda Xinhua
“I watched monks chanting and local people coming to pray. They wore traditional clothes, prayed and visited temples seemingly of their own free will. Although I do not understand their language, I was moved by the atmosphere,”
What a tragedy that tourists such as this have no chance to explore the reality beyond the cosmetic deceptions on display. However, with little opportunity to communicate directly with Tibetans, under the ever watchful scrutiny of Chinese security, tourists to Tibet are allowed an illusory and selective perspective, designed to reinforce the disinformation of progress and stability inside Tibet. As a part of that propaganda drive China ‘s intensified flights to Tibet, including services Beijing to Lhasa, so increasing tourism potential and making it easier for foreigners to make that formerly arduous journey. The benefits of such a development will certainly not reach the people of Tibet, who are increasingly exploited as a tourist curiosity in their own nation, oppressed and abused beyond the camcorder intrusions of thrill-seeking tourists.