TWO:                     CHINA’S TIBET FEVER


Alongside ingrained disdain for Tibet and especially the Tibetans, in today’s China there is now abundant evidence of a romantic embrace of a fantasy version of Tibet as a magical place of  eternal mystery and timeless folk living in enchanted landscapes, accompanied by their wonderfully ferocious but loyal mastiffs. If this sounds familiar, in fact a retread of every Shangri-la cliché you’ve ever heard, you are right.

On one hand, real Tibetans are feared and discriminated against across China. One recent example was the investigative expose of a manufacturer of topselling Apple products that explicitly refuses to hire Tibetans, and other minority ethnicities, into its workforce. Such stigmatisation is common; yet the romance only grows.

The ten volume best selling novel series shrewdly packagedasTibet Code is the prime example of the “Tibet fever” that swept China. So many books by Chinese authors are set in Tibet, past or present, giving the author licence to make improbably exaggerated plot moves seem believable. Anything can happen in Tibet. One of the latest “Tibet fever” novels is the saucy story of a Tibetan man at the command of his Chinese lover. The Ethnic China Lit blogger Bruce Humes describes it: “Chan Koonchung, the Beijing-based, HK-born author of the  apocalyptic and unsubtle Fat Years (盛世) has just launched his new, sure-to-be-controversial novel in Chinese, entitled 裸命 (The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver). The tale is written from the point of view of a young Tibetan man who is a volunteer for an animal protection NGO and also serves as a security guard at a hotel enigmatically named after the CCP’s key “maintain stability” policy (维稳宾馆), not to mention his other “identity”—as lover to a Han woman.”

Chan Koonchung’s Champa the Driver is the new erotica, featuring the dream lover as a masculine, heroic Tibetan dedicated to saving wildlife, when he is not servicing his Han mistress. This is no more odd, as a fantasy, than the rollicking plot of Tibet Code, which, as translator Joel Martinsen says: “revolves around a grand quest for the wonders of Tibet’s legendary past: the treasures of a lost temple, the race of mystics who guarded it, and a massive, ferocious variety of Tibetan Mastiff, known in the historical records as the Purple Qilin.” This is China’s grand new orientalist fantasy, Shangri-la reborn.

Tibet is a perfect blank canvas on which to project all of China’s current anxieties, fears, hopes and contradictions. And why not? After all, until quite recently, very few Han Chinese have been to Tibet, fewer still have had any meaningful contact with actual Tibetans, and Tibetans cannot speak up and critique what is published and filmed.

Not long ago Tibet was popularly seen by Han Chinese lowlanders as unnaturally cold, so lacking in oxygen as to threaten life, a remote and barren place no-one would choose to go to voluntarily. The people were known to be dirty, superstitious, stagnant, and violently ungrateful for everything China has done for them. As recently as 2008 official media endlessly repeated that Tibetans kill, loot, smash and burn everything Chinese. Surely the “Tibet fever” that Tibet Daily reporter Gao Yujie writes about has to be an improvement?

China’s home-grown orientalism, like the historic orientalism of Europe towards west Asia, ascribes fixed roles and identities to its exotic objects. The Tibetans are required to play their part in a Beijing based script. The scripted role for Tibetans is to be forever on the way to modernity, without ever reaching their goal of achieving a level of civilisation equivalent to the urban Chinese who come to Lhasa as tourists. This is an unresolved tension. If Tibetans remain backward, ungrateful and uncivilised, tourists will not feel welcome or even safe. If Tibetans adopt Chinese ways and language, thus improving their human quality, becoming more civilised and employable in Chinese enterprises, they lose their exotic appeal, and will compete with politically reliable Han Chinese immigrants for hospitality industry jobs. So Tibetans must forever be in between, striving but not yet succeeding in becoming more modern, in recognisably Chinese ways. This is the paradox: the Tibetans are not permitted to turn their backs on Chinese modernity, but they may not succeed either. They cannot fail but they cannot win. This internal contradiction inherent in China’s mass tourism industry and overall policy towards Tibet is at the core of the unique brand China has invented: China’s Tibet™. The agenda of this logo is that Tibet must be different, but not too different. It must be exotic, a mirror of otherness held to the visage of the visitor, yet also safe, familiar, domestic, with the reassurance that in China’s Tibet™ all Tibetans love China, and as a destination Tibet is not only safe but even comfortable.

In these ways central authorities achieve a “narrative uniformity that is enforced upon and over lead tourism sites [which] constitutes a form of cultural grammar by and through which the state defines travel itineraries and controls the meaning held over landscape, space, and place.”[1] Cheng Yan points out that: “the pursuit of collective and monolithic national imagery has caused a representational violence –one that is committed by the nation-state ideology operated through the organisation of tourism language.”[2]

In order to stage a daily spectacle in Lhasa, a story 14 centuries old, cherished by Tibetans and long forgotten by China, has been turned inside out. Princess Wencheng is loved in Tibet for bringing a precious statue of the Buddha, which survives today, in the central Jokhang temple, still blessing pilgrims who pray, with great devotion. This is no longer the crux of the story, since China is at best ambivalent about Buddhism, and hostile towards Tibetan Buddhism. The central message now is of a brave young woman daring to traverse the wilds of Tibet to go as far as Lhasa, in order to spread the seeds of Chinese agriculture, civilisation and benevolence towards the backward.

The deepest irony is that, throughout, China’s stance towards Tibet has taken its cues from the west. The ideas that most shaped modern Tibet were those of Karl Marx and Lewis Henry Morgan. China’s embrace of Marx, to save China from humiliation by imperialism, led to compulsory class war in Tibet, the violent denunciation and liquidation of the educated class. China’s embrace of Morgan, a largely forgotten pioneer anthropologist of American Indian tribes, is far well known. It was Morgan who insisted that all human societies can be ranked in order of the stage of human evolutionary progress they have made. At the bottom and at the very top are communist societies of complete equality, so the path of human evolution requires ascending the ladder, from primitive communism to post-bourgeois communism. In between are slave societies, feudal societies and capitalist societies.  Anthropology, even in the 19th century, moved on from this rigid typology, which insisted that the evolutionary ladder is a law of nature. But Morgan’s “law” was woven into the communism of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, which has never repudiated it. Tibet, classified as a feudal society bedevilled by superstition and parasitical lamas, had to be liberated from itself. These were the European ideas that destroyed Tibet.

Enmeshed market forces and state control combine, in Tibet, to rapidly make Tibet such a major tourism destination. Directive state slogans, plus the wealth-creating energy of tourism enterprises, combine to impose fixed roles on the people who are the magnet for the entire tourism experience: the Tibetans.

The most powerful  driver of the tourist flood is the modern quest for a unique, essential, individual self. This quest has been embraced by the newly wealthy urban middle class of China, and Tibet is its foil. Tibet has become a polymorphous space wherein a modern, civilised, cosmopolitan unique identity as an advanced Chinese citizen can emerge. But this quest for a fixed identity requires that Tibetans also occupy a fixed position, opposite to the modern. Tibetans must be happy, always smiling, dancing, simple premodern folk, children of nature, timeless and exotic, outside of history.

Fifteen years after the 1996 Ninth Tibet Autonomous Region Five-Year-Plan announced tourism as a “pillar industry”, all is changed. Fast, comfortable long-haul trains leave China’s key metropolitan cities daily for Lhasa, the ticket prices heavily subsidised. Air travel, in order to compete, has become cheaper. Endless TV documentaries, and soap operas of Chinese heroes selflessly serving the Tibetan masses have familiarised mass Chinese audiences with Tibet. New prosperity and the pace of city life encourage Chinese to holiday in Tibet. Tour companies, hotels, taxis, brothels, karaoke bars, nightclubs have multiplied. Prawns and other seafood delicacies are flown in from coastal provinces daily. Lhasa is booming.

Tibet, Lhasa, the Potala and other iconic places are, in marketing terms, long established famous brands with a high level of recognition; which are only now able to monetise the value inherent in those brands. Thus the visitors to the new upmarket hotels in Lhasa will be international tourists, who want both exotic sights and comfort. Yet most visitors to Tibet will, as now, be Han Chinese, even in the upmarket hotels. Many of the new hotel chains investing in Lhasa specialise in business and convention travellers; and are also experienced in the construction of in-house shopping malls featuring exclusive boutique stores selling luxuries at high prices. Such facilities will appeal to Chinese enterprises, Party organs, professional organisations, trade conferences and the new rich of China generally. What makes such venues so attractive is their combination of luxury banqueting options, luxury accommodation and leisure facilities, the latest communications technologies, boutique shops selling not only global luxury brands but also Tibetan aphrodisiacs, furs and guaranteed cures for the ailments of age. Add in nightclubs, business centres, conference halls and discreet meeting rooms for private business, and the mix is right, for a party-state with many ministries, bureaus, think-tanks, and official leading groups, all wanting new venues to network, conduct their work reports, and conspicuously consume.

The hotel chains now building in Lhasa already have properties in China’s big cities, often several, and the addition of Lhasa enables them to offer international tourists, including business travellers, a complete package, complete with incentives such as introductory pricing and special rates to ensure Lhasa quickly takes its place as a profit centre. The emerging hotel economy in Tibet does more to integrate Tibet into the Chinese economy than any other private investment ever has. It further exaggerates the role of the tertiary services sector as the source of urban Tibetan employment and wealth creation. For decades, as Beijing poured money into Tibet, employment was dominated to an extraordinary extent for a poor region, by administrative, logistics, freight handling and security personnel, all in the service industries. While primary producers -the Tibetan pastoral nomads and farmers in the countryside- were neglected and attracted little finance; and secondary manufacturing industry in TAR developed slowly, tertiary employment raced ahead. The split between primary, secondary and tertiary in TAR is more like that of a big, modern, highly developed city such as Beijing or Shanghai. Now hospitality and retail are set to boom in Lhasa as well.

But it is not only the construction of the new luxury resorts and hotels, even casinos, that make Tibet Chinese. The party-state, as we shall see, also achieves its objective by controlling the master narrative told to visitors as they stroll the iconic sites, accompanied everywhere by guides who have graduated in a master discourse taught formally in provincial and national tour guiding academies according to a strictly governed syllabus. The message is that Tibetans and Han Chinese are friends, eternal friends, necessary friends and indeed lovers whose destinies are entwined, ever since Kongjo (Princess) Wencheng of the Tang dynasty, married Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo 14 centuries ago.

The party-state may be paying a high price, in capital expenditure on infrastructure –roads, airports, urban facilities, telecommunications- to make mass tourism possible; but the pay-off is also big. The party-state gets to tell its version of Tibetanness, not only to the millions of Han Chinese visitors, but also to Tibetans. This dominant discourse, the only one allowed in the public sphere, eventually becomes absorbed, and Tibetans gradually start to believe they are lazy and backward, and in need of China’s vigour and advanced approach. There is plenty of ethnographic evidence, from anthropologists such as Emily Yeh that Tibetans do internalise this hegemonic discourse, and start to believe themselves inferior to the entrepreneurial Han.[3]

Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s conquest of Tibet, is best remembered for a pithy slogan China took to heart: To get rich is glorious. To get rich is to have choices, if rich enough, infinite choices. For poor people, in a poor country in which revolutionary ideology made everyone equal, but equally poor, the prospect of choice was delicious. Choice is individual, that is its’ point. Choice individuates me from you. I like this, you like that.  In the great democracy of relativism and consumption, we each make our choices. To have choice is to become a self, an individual, a unique person. To have choice is to become modern.

Deng’s famous slogan decisively defined the end of statist domination of the economy, and opened China to the world, to enterprise and wealth creation. The command economy, in which everything is owned, allocated and directed by the state, was officially buried by Deng’s new slogan. That remains the dominant story, of China’s endless rise ever since Deng spoke.

If the state was yielding to the natural, inborn human desire to accumulate, the last thing one might expect is that the state would have to instruct the masses how to consume. Surely the core attraction of consumer choice is that I can experiment, buying this and that, making mistakes, discovering by doing, finding what gives me the greatest satisfaction? Yet in China the ingrained Confucian statist tradition did find it necessary to establish a pedagogy of consumption, teaching the newly rich how to consume properly.  Learning how to consume was part of learning how to be modern, civilised, of high human quality (suzhi). It is the new form of the Confucian tradition of self-cultivation. However, the self to be cultivated is the modern self, a uniquely individual subjective self that seeks to express itself through its desires, choices and through consumption of goods and services.

Education in consumption focused on the novel concept of consumer rights. Consumers should learn to discriminate between good and bad quality goods, to understand the responsibilities of manufacturers for their products, especially foreign companies in China, which can be held accountable by consumer campaigns. After all, in the rich countries consumers are vocal, confident they can return shoddy goods and expect a refund, or in more serious cases, demand bad corporate actors be prosecuted. Mobilising consumers would seem to be just part of the withdrawal of the state, making room for individuals to assert their rights.

But in China rights are not inborn; they are granted by the state, and what is granted can always be withdrawn. Rights extended by the state to individuals must be properly exercised in order that China, collectively as a nation-state, prospers, proves to the world it is an advanced civilisation, with educated consumers ensuring product quality control. To China, this is all so obvious, it does not need stating Consumption is patriotic, it makes money go round, it visibly raises living standards, it sets new benchmarks for others to aspire to. It is the modern alternative to the peasant mentality of saving, hiding money under the mattress as the only insurance against hardship, illness or accident.

There has been intense pressure on China from abroad to increase consumption, elevating consumption to a solution to China’s problems, key to enduring prosperity and an end to reliance on exports in a world of capitalist crises that destroy as well as create demand and consumption. This global discourse, led by economists and governments, and most of all by global corporations keen to sell to Chinese consumers, considers as unnatural China’s ongoing reliance on state investment to boost growth. To a remarkable extent China’s GDP and growth rate are driven by massive state spending on infrastructure, with consumption being only one third of the total economy. This, the economists say, is unsustainable, unbalanced and vulnerable to collapses in global demand for the products of the world’s factory. More consumption is the answer. In any “normal” rich country, consumption is at least two thirds of the total economy, so China has far to go. This global pressure on China to foster greater consumption has made consumption another mission of the state, built into official Five-Year Plans, almost an ideology, another benchmark of China’s success.

Economists have been urging China to promote consumption for decades, and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, with its faltering of international demand for China’s manufactured goods, saw decisive state intervention to boost domestic consumption. In 1998 a new official slogan, guomin jingji xin zenzhangdian, declared tourism a new key growth area of the national economy. In 1999 the state proclaimed mandatory provision by work units of three weeks of holiday time, at the lunar new year in early spring, the national day celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic in October, and the annual May Day festivities. These three “golden weeks” of paid leave, as everyone calls them, put in place the preconditions for making China itself an object of consumption. This would seem to be a step towards making China a “normal” modern country, since tourist mobility is so central to global modernity.


[1] Keith Hollinshead and Chun Xiao Hou, The Seduction of “Soft Power”, Journal of China Tourism Research, 8, 2012, 227-247

[2] Cheng Yan, Tourism media Dynamics: Narratives of the nation-state, University of Illinois, 2010

[3] Emily T. Yeh, Tropes of Indolence and the Cultural Politics of Development in Lhasa, Tibet; Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97(3), 2007, pp. 593–612


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