Tourism, Politics and Relocation in Tibet

The past year's uprisings in Tibet against the Chinese reminded the world of the centuries old impasse between the competing nationalism of greater China and that of the Tibetans. Prior to this uprising, many of the Tibetan claims for independence had been articulated by Tibetan refugees who had relocated in south Asia and the West. Much of the international press coverage of the uprisings discussed the historical claims on either side of the polemic. But few examined why such demonstrations occurred at all, an action seemingly incongruous with the recent liberalization of Chinese policy toward Tibet. As a cultural anthropologist studying the maintenance of Tibetan national identity (Klieger) and a Western attorney (Liker), we had the opportunity to closely examine how this polemic is articulated by individual Tibetans within the homeland and in exile communities in India and Nepal in 1986-1987.

In blaming Westerners for the uprisings, the Chinese have stumbled upon a complex dynamic of interaction that has been occurring in Tibet since that region was first exposed to mass tourism in 1983. Coincidental to the opening of Tibet to unsupervised Westerners was the return of hundreds of young Tibetan refugees to their homeland. This combination of rapid tourist development, sudden release from decades of severe regulation of Tibetan life by the Chinese and the reinstatement of nationalistic refugees seeking employment in the tourist boom is the primary cause of the recent uprisings.

The Patron-Client Relationship

Approximately 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal have received nearly three decades of financial support from the West to maintain their institutions and identity in exile. Refugees have tended to accommodate this outside support within a traditional patron-client relationship (mchod-yon) that historically defined not only the responsibility of the Buddhist laity to maintain and protect the monasteries, but the ideal relationship between the ecclesiastic Tibetan state and the outside world as well. At the highest level, this outside support also defined the relationship between Tibet and the Chinese Empire during much of the Mongol and Manchu periods.

The West, through the agency of foreign aid, has become the new "patron" of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Although donors probably did not intend for this modern humanitarian aid to fuel Tibetan nationalism, because it is coextensive with the traditional practice of patronage, exile institutions and individual refugees have largely interpreted it as such.

Even Western tourists visiting such large refugee settlements as Dharamsala in northern India and Kathmandu in Nepal are often considered potential sbyin-bdag, or "bestowers of gifts," in the traditional patron-client categorization system. To support a Tibetan refugee or to even demonstrate curiosity and interest in Tibetan culture is often interpreted as support for Tibetan nationalism. Deliberately maintaining refugee status in exile rather than assimilating into the host society is an ideal usually equated with patriotism in diaspora communities. Tibetan exiles have political incentives to retain legal refugee status in south Asia.

Tibetans in Exile

But maintaining perpetual rootlessness, however idealized, is a psychological and economic struggle for many younger Tibetans born in exile. Many face the dilemma of remaining "good Tibetans" by professing refugee status while trying to succeed financially beyond the "welfare state" created by refugee aid. The refugee living in India and Nepal has limits regarding the acquisition of property and financial security, as well as mobility. This economic marginality, as well as intense curiosity for their homeland, has motivated hundreds of young Tibetans to take advantage of China's offer to visit Tibet for extended periods without immediate obligation for repatriation. Permanent repatriation of the Tibetan exiles is a Chinese political strategy that would serve to discredit the Tibetan exile government headed by the Dalai Lama in India. It is a solicitation often accompanied by Chinese offers of cash and jobs in Tibet.

Few accept the offers for this sort of repatriation. However, many exiles have been returning on a temporary basis, without renouncing their status as refugees or as patriots. Among the motivations for returning to Tibet, based on our interviews of many young Tibetans in south Asia and Nepal, were (1) to reaffirm their identity as Tibetans by visiting their homeland and (2) to make money as individual entrepreneurs, tour guides, "culture brokers" and tradespeople in the booming foreign tourist market. They rationalized that in these occupations they could present Western tourists with a "true" picture of Tibetan history and Tibet's rightful independence. Being largely adept in English and the history of Tibet according to the Tibetan government-in-exile, they are eminently qualified for these tasks. Returning refugees, indeed, became native agents who could successfully compete with the Chinese in the development of tourism in Tibet, serving as an alternative to the Chinese historical propaganda aimed at these foreign visitors. Working in the tourist trade in Tibet, then, became not only an economic activity but an act of patriotism as well.

The Growth of Tourism

The incorporation of foreigners within the patron-client system is evident in both south Asian refugee communities and the long-term history of Tibet. Perhaps the model for supporting Tibetan nationalism through Western agency had been established in Tibet proper by the coincidence of returning refugees and Western tourists from late 1983 to the uprisings in 1987-1988. Refugees were not only aware of the expectations of the Western tourist, but they had gained expertise in producing, distributing and marketing goods and services directly to foreigners from their experience in south Asia. Refugees were in great demand, therefore, by both local Tibetans and independent tourists alike.

One liberalization that occurred during this time was the lifting of certain Chinese restrictions in Tibet for private enterprise. Many local Tibetans sought the advice of returning refugees in establishing small hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops catering to Westerners. In addition, refugees tended to represent an image of free Tibet to the local populace, an idiom that had scarcely been articulated by local Tibetans since its occupation in 1959. Refugees also brought with them the notion that Westerners, even as tourists, are generally sympathetic and supportive of the liberation of the country from Chinese rule.

The idea of Western agency supporting Tibetan nationalism was being transplanted to the local populace in Tibet. These factors all tended to encourage the expression of nationalism among local Tibetans. This, undoubtedly, was an unintended consequence of the simultaneous development of mass tourism and the return of exiles to their homeland for the Chinese.

Foreign tourism in Tibet from 1983 to the uprisings in 1987-1988 had developed into two widely separated segments: (1) a tourism sponsored "from above" by the PRC government through their China International Travel Service (CITS), which mainly conducts organized group tours and (2) a development "from below" by local and refugee entrepreneurs catering primarily to the unsupervised, independent tourist.

Group tourism, common in many socialist countries, provides the economic benefits to the host country at a minimal risk of socio-cultural and political interference. Group tourism generally insulates the visitor from all but certain selected features of the host country. Unstructured tourism, on the other hand, can provide much more tourist volume overall, but also presents greater sociopolitical risks as interaction between tourists and local inhabitants increases. In Tibet, unsupervised tourism allowed Westerners contact with both local Tibetans and returning exiles; tourists became the medium through which Tibetan nationalism could be articulated.

CITS group tourism in Tibet, as in many socialist countries, attempts to impress the visitor with the progressive nature of the Chinese communist reformation - and, more recently, of China's liberal policies concerning the practice of religion in Tibet. Some of the more important monasteries and temples are being restored at Chinese expense, often with just enough realism to convey the impression that they had remained untouched by the "mistakes" of the Cultural Revolution. This restoration often presents nothing more than a pastiche of distorted Tibetan "traditionalism." The underlying strategy of impression management presently practiced by the Chinese tourist system, other than occluding the scars of occupation, is to demonstrate that Tibet has always been an integral part of China. Monastery and palace custodians - and, of course, Chinese CITS guides - are instructed to point out chapels and paintings honoring Chinese emperors and other evidence of the "perpetual political and cultural alliance between the province of Tibet and the central Chinese government." Official tourism development, in addition, has encouraged the emigration of hundreds of Han Chinese to Tibet.

On the other hand, the local Tibetan tourism system, stimulated by the refugee model as well as the relaxation of free-enterprise restrictions in China in general, stresses Tibet's unique culture and its political separation from China. The presence of foreigners as potential patrons of a free Tibet seems to be evident in the Tibetan attitude toward tourism development. In 1987, the local Tibetan population considered the presence of visiting refugees. Western and refugee Buddhist monks and nuns, and large numbers of unsupervised tourists with some knowledge of traditional Tibetan culture as advantageous in the sense that they represented the successful maintenance of Tibetan cultural institutions outside the country. Their presence demonstrated that the Dalai Lama and his programs had been effective, that Tibetan identity would continue and that its religion had taken root abroad.

Westerners' Views of Tibet

Whereas the Chinese-based tourist industry dealt mainly with supervised group tours, Tibetan-based tourist development primarily serviced the needs of the unsupervised, independent tourist. Our estimates indicate that the market was fairly evenly split during the 1987 tourist season.

Some group tourists, too, who had managed to escape the scheduled supervision of CITS tours, put a high premium on refugee assistance - mainly in the form of translators and guides. When we asked some of these tourists why they would prefer to leave the comforts and insulation of the group tour, typical responses were (1) that they were frustrated with the bureaucratic machination of CITS; (2) that they were insulted by the Chinese version of Tibetan history; (3) that they disliked being isolated and segregated from the Tibetans; and (4) that the refugees were more polite, understood the Western idiom and spoke English better. Whether consciously or not, tourists were actively replacing Chinese impression management with the Tibetan refugee version.

From our survey, the overwhelming majority of tourists in Tibet want to see Tibet as it was - not as it has become under Chinese occupation. Tourists want to interact with Tibetans, perhaps wishing to perpetuate the romantic notion of Shangri-la, an image that Tibetans seem eager to provide. But, in a sense, tourists have become pawns in a deeply seated political struggle between the opposing forces of China irredenta and Tibetan independence. The Chinese seem to have underestimated several important aspects in the development of tourism in this region: (1) the motivation of foreign tourists for visiting Tibet, (2) the traditional Tibetan propensity for incorporating sympathetic and friendly outsiders into their own religiopolitical system and (3) the revitalization potential of repatriating Tibetan refugees.

The Chinese vs. Tibetan tourist impression management dynamic can be summarized in this way: (1) the Chinese de-emphasize the symbolic boundaries between Tibet and China, and (2) the Tibetans emphasize the symbolic boundaries between Tibet and China. Both sides view Western agency, in the form of mass tourism, as beneficial, giving each faction an audience to which it can present its version of the Tibetan question.

Following the uprisings in the fall of 1987 and spring of 1988, the Chinese sealed most of the Tibetan region off from the world. A few selected tours are being allowed to visit Lhasa again in the fall of 1988. The Tibetans have again voiced their wish for independence through the tourist medium. Chinese officials have cause to reconsider their policy on tourism. Any reopening of Tibet to tourism would be a trade-off to the Chinese: although it would provide much-needed foreign exchange and other regional economic stimuli, it would also expose foreigners to the other side of the polemic. Keeping Tibet sealed while boasting to the world of China's reformed openness is bound to be very embarrassing to Chinese leadership. On the other hand, opening Tibet up to the demands of modern tourism can again compromise the Chinese version of Tibetan history.

Gone, apparently, is the spirit of capitalism and free enterprise characteristic of independent tourism. Gone, too, is the feeling of a true revival of Tibetan Buddhist culture that had been developing from 1983 to 1987. Some refugees have managed to again escape to south Asia; the fate of many of our other friends and associates is unknown.

Tourism in Tibet has reopened a long-suppressed and unanswered set of political and ethical questions. As a potential force for political change and for population relocation, tourism has perhaps rarely had such a radical impact on a society as it has recently in this "Shangri-la," a very real place for the 6 million Tibetans whose rights of self-determination are again upon the world stage.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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