It’s the West, not China, that’s ‘ruining’ Tibet
In recent years, we have seen many Westerners flooding into Tibet, a Shangri-La in their eyes, via all kinds of modern vehicles: buses, airplanes and trains, even as some condemn their part in the colonization of Tibet.
Resting in air-conditioned hotels, drinking Starbucks and enjoying broadband Internet access in Lhasa, they lament the diminution and erosion of Tibetan traditional culture by Han Chinese, and cry over the loss of belief when seeing some young Tibetan monks playing video games in Internet cafes, instead of reading sutras or playing dhyana in temples.
Perhaps these Western tourists didn't notice their unconscious role as accomplices to the Chinese government.
"Tourism is another practice of Hanization of Tibet," according to Pierre-Antoine Donnet, a French journalist who worked for Agence France-Presse in Beijing in 1984-89, in his book, "Tibet: Survival in Question." The strategy of using Western tourists to undermine Tibetan traditions, suggests Donnet, has succeeded in changing the customs and lifestyles in Lhasa and other tourist cities.
Ironic, isn't it? Westerners have brought their languages, lifestyles and ways of thinking to Tibet. So the more they swarm to see the real Tibet with their own eyes, the more the Chinese government is blamed for diluting the unique culture in Tibet.
And what do Westerners want to see in Tibet? Is their preconception of another Paris, another Beijing or the humdrum city they themselves inhabit? Of course not. So they are shocked to see the traditional Tibetan architecture with white pillars and blue windows replaced by ugly concrete highrises, Tibetans wearing suits and high heels instead of traditional Tibetan robes or boots, or listening to pop music and dancing disco. And they might be told by Tibetans in English that they are forced to learn Chinese in order to find a better job.
That's Hanization. Some visitors will jump to that conclusion without hesitation.
But wait a moment, please. Are those ugly concrete monsters the invention of Han Chinese? Are those suits and high heels traditional costumes of Han Chinese?
You might not know that the Tibetan language is limited in its vocabulary for science and technology and contemporary sociological science, so should the Chinese government teach Tibetan kids English instead of Chinese for better empowerment of advanced knowledge? If you really want to stick a label on it, Westernization, or globalization, could be a more appropriate word for what's occurring in Tibet.
What's most needed in Tibet now? Chen Ruoxi, a famous Taiwanese author, posed this question to many Tibetans, and the mainstream answer is modernization -- a greater level of development and civilization. If you oppose industrialization, oppose exploitation of natural resources, even oppose tourism, how can the much-anticipated development be fulfilled in Tibet? Aren't there some Westerners who privately want to keep Tibet at the primitive medieval stage so they can appreciate its wonderful scenery, seek novelty in its unique culture or even find some spiritual redemption in its mysterious religion?
I'm a Han Chinese, wearing A&F T-shirts, Armani Exchange pants and Oakley sunglasses; a Han Chinese, enjoying Starbucks coffee and appreciating the McDonald's flavors you find in China much more than the original flavors served here; a Han Chinese, working hard to learn English in order to make myself better understood and better informed; a Han Chinese, seriously disliking the Communist Party -- for its totalitarianism, not for its communist philosophy. To some extent, I'm so Westernized. But none of these things has ever compromised my "Chineseness." And they never will.
Compared to Han Chinese, Tibetans are underdogs, and I fully understand the sympathy of Westerners for underdogs. Han Chinese, by the way, are underdogs compared to Westerners.
But the empowerment of a person, an ethnic group or a country cannot be achieved by boycott, purge or segregation. The fact that globalization is destroying cultural identities and accelerating a homogenized, Westernized culture is sad.
But it's a hard trend to reverse. The Chinese Communist Party might have done lots of bad things to Tibet, but that hardly absolves Westernization and globalization of guilt in this process.
Jason Chen, a journalist with Xinhua news service in Beijing, currently is a Parvin Fellow at the University of Hawaii.