Saturday, January 16, 2016

Tibet ...with Chinese Characteristics

A few weeks ago, The New York Times published a stunning photo feature on a horse festival held in the Batang Grasslands, near Jyekundo in Eastern Tibet (today Qinghai province of China).
Yushu, as the town is known in Chinese, is a special place. In April 2010, the Yushu earthquake made world headlines.
With a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale, the quake killed nearly 3,000 people, while 12,135 were injured. Ninety percent of the houses and public buildings were destroyed.
Four years later, Yushu was rebuilt …with Chinese characteristics. In April 2015, The Time noted that the price of recovery has however been a loss of identity for the Tibetans: “[as] the help was not offered without condition and has resulted in heightened state control.”
The December horse race was attended by thousands of nomads, monks and traders; while many deduced that the high plateau was witnessing a revival of the Tibetan culture, others realized that it is just a clever move bythe Chinese.
The New York Times saw the second facet: “These days, horse festivals on the Tibetan plateau are not just about equestrian prowess. They are political affairs with a propaganda goal — Chinese officials hold them to signal to people here and abroad that traditional Tibetan culture is thriving, contrary to what the Dalai Lama and other critics say.”
Those who attended the race could not miss the heavy presence of the Peoples’ Armed Police Force, constantly patrolling in the midst of the Tibetan crowds.
Though joy and excitement could be seen on the faces of the Tibetan participants and spectators, everyone knew that the festival was ‘watched’.
But for outsiders, the festival showcased a new China promoting the culture of the ethnic minorities, “that of dancing, singing, happy-go-lucky, costume-wearing, loyal citizens of the nation,” said The New York Times.
A Tibetan told the newspaper that Beijing wants to project itself as a benevolent state, “even as it restricts the teaching of Tibetan language, tries to control Buddhism and presses Tibetans to assimilate into the dominant Han culture.”
The phenomenon is not new; it is in fact a conscious policy decided during the Fifth Tibet Work Forum held in Beijing in January 2010.
Work Forums are large meeting attended by several hundreds of officials, including all the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, local satraps, senior PLA and PAPF officers, planners, etc.
During these Forums, China’s Tibet policy is decided for the following 5/10 years. The most recent one, the Sixth Tibet Work Forum, was held in August 2015.
Addressing the gathering, President Xi Jinping stated that “efforts should also be made to incorporate education on ‘socialist core values’ into courses in schools at various levels, popularize the national commonly-used language [Mandarin] and script, and strive to foster Party-loving and patriotic builders.”
However knowing that the imposition of Mandarin could have severe backlashes on the Tibetan plateau, as demonstrated by the unrest in March/April 2008, the Chinese government has decided that ‘minorities’ languages could be included in the curriculum in some cases. Similarly, Tibetan culture can be promoted under the Party’s close watch, most of the time with Chinese characteristics.
A ‘Cloud Tibet’, China's first Tibetan search engine has the same objective; Xinhua recently reported its forthcoming release during the second half of 2016.
According to the head of the project, one Tselo, the database and the semantic unit function are already running. Xinhua said that the venture was launched in April 2013 and more than 150 people have been working on it at the Tibetan language research center in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province. Tselo also affirmed: “The recognition rate is over 95 percent."
The project is part of a larger scheme: Beijing has decided to promote tourism on a mega scale in Tibet is order to ‘promote’ Tibetan culture, bring more revenue to the local population and assimilate Tibet once and for all, …while providing entertainment to the Han masses. So many birds with one stone.
For centuries, Tibet has been the most isolated country on the planet. A few brave explorers managed to sneak in, most of the times illegally on the Roof of the World. Today, the Chinese propaganda thus describes the plateau: “Tibet with its mystery is the spiritual Garden of Eden and is longed by travelers home and abroad. Only by stepping on the snowy plateau, can one be baptized by its splendor, culture, folklore, life, snow-mountains, saint-mountains, sacred lakes, residences with local characteristics and charming landscape”.
Tibet is fast becoming the largest entertainment park in the world, thousand times larger than Disneyland.
Beijing has decided to market the Land of Snows as the ultimate ‘indigenous’ spot for the Chinese people to spend their holidays.
In the process, Tibetan culture and language are sometimes promoted.
Tibet has two unique assets: first, its physical reality. The beauty of the landscape, the imposing mountain ranges, the purity of the air and the rivers, the dry blue sky (especially when compared to the dark sky of China’s great metropolis); Tibet is indeed the ideal place to have a break from the fast pace of the polluted mainland of China.
The second advantage is the rich historical past of the Roof of the World, the Land of the Lamas. In Tibet, you can find everything, says the Chinese propaganda: a beautiful Chinese princess falling for the powerful emperor and converting him to Buddhism; monasteries and nunneries, seat of a wisdom lost; folkloric yak or snow-lion dances; ‘ethnic’ festivals; beautiful colourful handicrafts; exotic food, you name it, …and thousands of Tibetans who can guide the crowds through the mega-park/region.
The most grandiose of these entertainment projects is the ‘Grand Princess Wencheng Opera’; an opera on the life of the Chinese wife of the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gompo, who lived in the 7th century CE.
Staged at the outskirts of Lhasa, the opera has proved to be a stunning success with the Han tourists. It is said to be performed 180 times every season. Some 600 actors perform on a nearly-100 meters long stage, in front of a newly-built Potala Palace, a few kilometers from the real one.
Beijing uses China’s ‘historical records’ to tell the Han tourists the history of Tibet, as Beijing sees it.
The opera, watched by 300,000 visitors last year, brought 150 million yuan revenue; Xinhua asserted: “The historic intermarriage presented in the drama symbolized peace and prosperity for the two areas.”
‘Two areas’ are Tibet and China, two separate entities at the time of Songtsen Gompo, who invaded China during his reign (this is of course forgotten by Beijing).
Can you guess in which language the opera is performed?
In Putonghua or Mandarin of course! It says it all.
Pouring 20 millions of ‘tourists’ (this is the official figure for 2015) into a relatively small place like the Tibetan Autonomous Region, requires to be ready to provide ‘good entertainment’.
That is why the local Tibetan government organizes ‘festivals’ such as the Lhasa Shoton (yoghurt) Festival or the Yushu Horse Racing Festival.
Xinhua explains that during the Shoton festival, “there are celebrations in the streets, squares and monasteries in Lhasa”, though the main venue is the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace, the Norbulinka. At the same time, the ‘D’ word is banned on the plateau!
A few days ago, Xinhua announced that Tibet will have ‘20 distinctive towns’ in the next three years, “making them exemplary areas for comfortable living, work …and tourism”.
Comfortable for whom? Undoubtedly for the Chinese tourists.
Early this month, the first of such cities was inaugurated in Gongkar County, near Lhasa, “[these] towns will stick to the principle of prudent cutting of trees, no digging of mountains, no filling lakes and little destruction of houses,” says Xinhua. Good, but Tibet has already become the Disneyland of Snows …with Chinese characteristics.
This makes the situation far more dangerous for the future of the Tibetans, if they want to preserve their distinctiveness. Unfortunately, the Middle Way of the Dalai Lama does not cater for the new dangerous trend.

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