Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 18

By Jonathan Mirsky

Recent accounts of Chinese tourists in Tibet revive one of my clearest memories: the coarse behaviour of the Chinese during my six visits to the region between 1982 and 1990. It is as traditionally pious for Tibetans to walk clockwise in sacred places, like temples and monasteries, as it is for Westerners to doff their hats in a church or to cover their heads in a synagogue. But the Chinese routinely walked counterclockwise, bumping constantly into every Tibetan and any foreigner circling in the respectful direction. The visitors would speak in loud voices, laugh, point and spit, as if they were in a Chinese public place. Such was Chinese behaviour in all the so-called “minority areas” where the inhabitants are routinely referred to by Chinese as vigorous, sexy–and backward. It was common for Chinese officials in such places to say that the ultimate goal was to bring local people to a point of civilization where they would be indistinguishable from Hans.

In the current reports of Chinese visitors to Tibet they remarked on how much fun is was to be in Tibet. One visitor “found herself at a nomads’ horse festival in Nakchu, 4,500 metres (14,760 feet) high on the Tibetan plateau, happily rubbing shoulders with herders and monks and intoxicated by the smell of yak butter, barley beer and incense. ‘It’s like a wonderland,’ said the human resources manager from Shanghai as horsemen raced to pick silk scarves off the ground before an audience in colorful traditional robes. ‘We learned that Tibet was a backward place,’ said Qu, 27. ‘I was too scared to come before. The reality is so different from what we were told.'” Leading the trend, according to a recent account, are Chinese artists, writers and pop stars, for whom a trip to the region has become fashionable.

Although it is widely known in the West that the Chinese occupiers of Tibet have acted brutally, most Chinese who think about Tibet at all either deny or merely suspect that something bad happened there after 1950. (A few intellectuals, after Tiananmen, confessed that they now believed what their foreign friends had told them about how the Chinese army had long behaved in Tibet.) This brutality was born of two convictions, held by all but a few Chinese: Tibet is a part of China, so Beijing’s representatives there have a free hand, depending on the degree of brutality permitted. This varied from the destruction of temples and the forced secularization of monks and nuns, to the continuing imprisonment of Tibetans who defy Chinese rule, to the refusal to deal with the Dalai Lama, who is routinely dismissed as a “criminal splittist”.

Behind the constant defence of Chinese actions in Tibet and the fending off of any international criticism as interference in China’s sovereignty, lay a second conviction: Chinese scorn for “barbarian” or “minority” peoples of non-Han culture. This emerges in the enthusiasm of Chinese visitors who find Tibet “colorful.”

Beijing has just organised a trip to Tibet for foreign journalists. Its press handlers know that Chinese actions in Tibet are known to reporters, who are discouraged from making trips on their own. The reporters usually heed the advice because they fear being expelled from China, when in fact going to the region usually brings no more than an admonition. The problem with such organized trips is that Tibet, probably more than any other part of Chinese-controlled territory, repays reporters who are patient. A quick visit here, a short interview there, are usually fruitless. What works is time, time spent sitting for hours in a monastery kitchen or in prayer halls, where eventually a Mandarin-speaking monk or nun may approach, show a concealed picture of the Dalai Lama, and tell you his opinion of the Chinese occupiers. That same monk may have been rolled out earlier to tell reporters what the Chinese want him to say. Later the monk may take a reporter aside and tell him not to believe what he had heard.

There is one especially big problem for the Chinese in Tibet about which it is impossible for them to construct a convincing lie: the Panchen Lama, the second-highest religious figure after the Dalai Lama. In 1989 the 10th Panchen died, and in 1995 the Dalai Lama, from his exile in India, identified his 11th incarnation, the 6-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. This little boy and his family were immediately arrested by the Chinese and have never been seen again.

The Chinese then organized a bogus ceremony complete with pliable senior monks to install as the 11th Panchen another child, Gyaltsen Norbu, who is now 13. He has met with President Jiang Zemin, who complimented him on his knowledge of Buddhism and urged him to love the Chinese “Motherland” and socialism. This child makes occasional ceremonial appearances in Tibet where, according to monks speaking off-the-record, he is ignored by local people. When UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson was recently in Beijing and asked about the missing boy she was given the usual answer: that he is “where he is supposed to be,” with his parents, who do not wish the little family to be disturbed.

I doubt whether even the most credulous Chinese tourist, given the few facts, would believe this lie, which cannot be fitted into the charade of colorful, vigorous, sexy Tibet.

Jonathan Mirsky, was the China correspondent of The Observer [London] and East Asia Editor of The Times [London]. In 1989 he was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. He lives in London.

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