Chinese officialdom embraces ‘Shangri-La’

The Chinese authorities use the idea that Tibet is somehow ‘different’ to justify the lack of democracy and development.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Tibet.

What the CPC and the Free Tibet lobby have in common

Tourism is booming in Tibet, especially among the Chinese. In 1980, only 3,525 tourists came here: 1,059 of them internationals and 2,466 of them Chinese. In 2007, four million tourists visited Tibet, around 370,000 of them internationals and a whopping 3.6million of them Chinese. The most striking thing is why these Chinese are traipsing to this tough terrain, which for five decades has had a frequently troubled relationship with China. It’s for the same reason that Westerners came to Tibet, or more popularly went to India and Nepal, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s – to escape the grime of modern daily life and ‘find themselves’.

‘For some Chinese people, the fast pace of economic development has left them yearning for a pre-modern world’, says Lian Xiangmin of the China-Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing, which I visit before travelling to Lhasa. ‘They want to escape for a while. They are a little bit disappointed when they find that Lhasa is actually a modern place.’ My flight from Chengdu in south-west China to Lhasa is packed with youthful Chinese and Chinese families (and also a smattering of Western faces, including a hippyish German family whose young son is wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Learn Swahili!’ – someone needs to make their mind up about which is their favourite exotic ethnicity).

Music at the Himalaya Hotel

A teacher from the Sichuan province of China tells me she travels to Lhasa to ’empty my mind’. A handsome banker from Chengdu – who I am delighted to say is wearing Fred Perry – loves Lhasa because ‘it’s so different to the rest of China’. The most fascinating thing is the way the Chinese authorities themselves have co-opted the Western-invented imagery of ‘Shangri La’ to promote tourism to Tibet. Once super-keen to emphasise the inherent Chineseness of Tibet, the idea that it’s a natural, historic, permanent and inseparable part of the motherland, the Communist Party of China (CPC) now seems increasingly relaxed about advertising Tibet’s alleged exoticness.

As one report puts it, ‘China promotes Tibet as an exotic holiday destination, appropriating the Shangri La imagery familiar to Western readers of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Lobsang Rampa’s Third Eye, and colour travelogues on Buddhist hermits and the Tibetan landscape’ (1). So when I arrive in Lhasa airport I am greeted by a vast poster featuring dancing Tibetan women and the words ‘Magical Tibet – Land of Pure Wanders’ [sic. Or maybe it’s not sic if they mean Tibet is a place of great walks.] And then the strangest sight of all: a youthful member of China’s authoritarian People’s Liberation Army putting the kata, a traditional Tibetan greeting scarf, around the necks of Chinese dignitaries arriving at the airport.

This all points to perhaps the most startling thing I have discovered during my visit here, something that runs so counter to trendy opinion in the West that I’m not even sure I should say it for fear of being labelled, not for the first time in my life, a contrarian. And that is that Chinese officialdom, far from raping and pillaging Tibetan culture, manically celebrates and promotes it. And it does so for entirely self-serving reasons, as a new, effectively PC way of justifying its undemocratic governance of what remains a tense, quite poor territory.

Free Tibet UK argues that the Chinese, whom it always depicts as faceless, marauding monsters, are seeking to ‘wipe out Tibetan identity and culture altogether’ (2). This is simply not true. My official guides, a mixture of Chinese officials from Beijing and representatives of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), who run Tibet on behalf of the CPC, assault me with Tibetan culture and religion. They take me to Jokhang Temple and hand me over to an excitable monk who explains at great length why this is Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site. Then to the magnificent Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lamas from the seventh century up to the fleeing of the fourteenth Dalai Lama to northern India in 1959, where I am given an extensive (and fascinating) education on Tibetan Buddhism.

A Tibetan Medicinist predicts
the weather using a sand-plank

We visit not one but two Tibetan Medicine Hospitals, Tibetan medicine being a curious mix of Buddhist mysticism, homeopathy, massage, acupuncture and blood-letting (yes, they still do that). I am told that both the central Chinese government and TAR have pumped millions and millions of yuan into funding these hospitals, and also educational facilities that will create a new generation of Tibetan Medicinists, so concerned are they that young Tibetans are rejecting these archaic practices in favour of the ‘quick fix’ of Western medicine with its manufactured pills and injections. Finally, after failing to convert me to Tibetan Buddhism, they take me to see one of Tibet’s many modernisation programmes – a breakthrough IT initiative at Tibet University. (More on that tomorrow.)

It’s not surprising that Western Tibet activists are spectacularly wrong about how official China engages with Tibetan culture, and are insensitive to some important changes that have taken place. After all, they’ve always had a supremely childish view of the tensions between Tibet and China. In the words of Donald S Lopez Jr, author of Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, they view the Chinese as ‘an undifferentiated mass of godless Communists overrunning a peaceful land devoted only to ethereal pursuits’ and come to see Tibetans as ‘superhuman’ and the Chinese as ‘subhuman’ (3). That is, they reduce a complex conflict, massively informed and influenced by international tensions as well as by local stand-offs, to a Hans Christian Andersen-style morality tale.

So they overlook the key, somewhat ironic role played by the British rulers of Tibet in the 1920s, 30s and 40s in creating so-called Tibetan Independence. Where under the feudal rule of the Dalai Lamas, Tibet had conceived of itself largely as a religious entity, the lamas were convinced by the British to adopt the trappings of nationalism. As one fascinating historical study points out, the British funded the creation of a national Tibetan flag, a Tibetan football team and Tibetan school uniform, with the explicit, express aim, in the words of one British imperialist, of ‘showing that Tibet had its own art etc and that in some ways Tibet is more closely allied to India than to China’ (4). In short, the idea of ‘Tibetan independence’ was born largely from the needs of British imperialism in India, and from British conflict with China, rather than from the demands of the Tibetan masses.

Western pro-Tibet activists also overlook the role later played by Washington, in particular the CIA, in funding and training the Dalai Lama’s armed forces in the 1950s. Between China’s invasion of Tibet in 1951 and the fleeing of the Dalai Lama in 1959, the CIA took a keen interest in directing the Tibetan forces as part of what the Dalai Lama himself later described as Washington’s broader international campaign of ‘anti-Communism’ (5). There is nothing simplistic about this historic clash. In their constant focus on the ‘cultural freedom’ of Tibet, with their claims about a ‘cultural genocide’ and the annihilation of an identity, Western pro-Tibet activists demonstrate that their aim was never to understand the complexities of this region, far less to put the case for grown-up freedoms for Tibetans, but rather to protect their own reified image of an unspoiled cultural entity.

And lo and behold, their narcissistic prejudices have ended up serving the Chinese well. When the entire focus of Western criticism of Chinese governance in Tibet is that it doesn’t sufficiently respect Tibetan culture, then the Chinese can fairly easily make a display of their commitment to preserving Tibetan traditions while getting on with the business of denying Tibetans political freedoms, democratic rights such as the right to vote, and freedom of speech. The Chinese have effectively made the Western fantasy of Shangri-La a reality, increasingly treating Tibet as a special place where harsh farming life (a majority of Tibetans still work in agriculture and animal husbandry) is not a sign of underdevelopment but a tradition to be celebrated; where extreme and backward forms of Buddhism do not raise awkward questions about social progress but rather reveal Tibetans’ inner souls; where there is no need for Tibetans directly to elect their political rulers because they have their own lamas and monks and nuns to look up to. The Free Tibet brigade and the Chinese authorities have more in common than either side would like to admit: both promote Tibetan traditions for self-serving reasons, to the neglect of a meaningful debate about political self-determination for Tibetans.

The real problem here is not a national one; there was never a mass movement for national independence in the way there was in Ireland or Palestine in the 1970s, for example. No, the problem is that Tibetans are like all other Chinese, in that they are denied some very fundamental political rights. They have that ‘cultural freedom’ that Western observers have been demanding for so long, but they aren’t free.

On a high

Now I know why the LSD crowd of the 1960s were so interested in Tibet: it’s because being here is a bit like being on drugs. When you first arrive in Lhasa, the high altitude and corresponding lack of oxygen can make you dizzy, disorientated, and more than a little daft. ‘Slowly!’ said my Tibetan host as I ascended a flight of stairs at the Potala Palace on my second morning here. When I got to the top I understood her concern: my head was spinning, my vision blurred, and I said in a voice that completely didn’t sound like my own: ‘Where’s. The. Toilet?’ I haven’t felt like that since the days of Ebeneezeer Goode in the early 1990s.

Butter candles in the
Jokang Temple, Lhasa

But you get used to it before long, thanks to a Michael Jackson-style oxygen machine next to your hotel bed, anti-altitude sickness pills (I’m on 12 a day), and a brilliant can of weird-tasting pop called The Drink With Rhodiola In It, rhodiola being a herb that Tibetans have been taking for years to help them cope with living on the ‘roof of the world’. But I still feel like I haven’t taken a full, lung-filling breath since arriving here, just short gasps of oxygen-light air. Still, there are upsides. I have been advised not to shower very often (you might get a cold), definitely not to jog or lift weights (you might faint), and to go to bed at 9pm each night for lots of rest. I haven’t religiously stuck to that last rule. But live like a lazy slob for a week? I can handle that.

This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Tibet. Read all of Brendan’s reports here.

(1) Quoted in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

(2) Free Tibet activists protest China’s opening of Tibet railway, Free Tibet UK, 1 July 2006

(3) Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald S Lopez Jr, University of Chicago Press, 1998

(4) See Tibet and the British Raj: The Frontier Cadre 1904 to 1947, by Alex McKay, 1997

(5) Buddha’s Warriors: The Story of the CIA-backed Tibetan Freedom Fighters, the Chinese Invasion, and the Ultimate Fall of Tibet, by Mikel Dunham, JP Tarcher Publishers, 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today