Tibet Disenchanted


The first time I visited Tibet, in the fall of 1982, scars of the Maoist years were still plain to see: Buddhist wall paintings in temples and monasteries were scratched out or daubed with revolutionary slogans. Now that new winds are blowing, these offending daubs have been scrubbed out in their turn. Chinese were around then, though not in large numbers, and almost all of them in military uniform. But the early 1980s were a time of relatively liberal policies. There was little sign of terror. And Tibetan towns still looked entirely Tibetan. Han Chinese influence was mainly confined to the barracks. Hotels hardly existed; restaurants were few and mostly bad. Even in the main cities of Lhasa, Gyantse, and Shigatse, there was little evidence of a modern economy.

Things have changed a great deal since then. Modernization replaced class struggle as the main form of propaganda, even though revolutionary dogma has not disappeared. Modernization is how many colonial powers before the Chinese justified their imperial rule in Asia, and elsewhere. And it is to a large extent how the Communist Party of China justifies its grip today. A huge amount of government money is being poured into the “Tibet Autonomous Region,” and Chinese fortune hunters are flocking there in ever larger numbers. Stories I had been hearing of the results, from travelers and reporters, were disturbing and often a little fantastic: gambling casinos, gigantic discotheques, four-story brothels. These are not uncommon establishments in the wild frontier towns of Chinese-style capitalism, but it took some imagination to picture them in front of the Potala palace or the Tashilhunpo monastery. When I decided to have a look, it was less in a spirit of outrage, however, than of curiosity about who, among the Tibetans, might be benefiting.

I did not see a gambling casino in front of the Potala, but it is true that the road into Lhasa is lined with shabby little bordellos masquerading as karaoke bars, which means that customers are given the opportunity to sing before moving on to the main entertainment. That same road passes by a large, ugly sculpture of two golden yaks, which stands where the old West Gate of the city used to be until it was smashed by Red Guards in the 1960s. The golden yaks were a gift from the Chinese government to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of “peaceful liberation.”

Orville Shell complains in his book Virtual Tibet that Lhasa looks “drab.” I am not sure I agree. Much of the dilapidated charm of the old Tibetan city has gone, to be sure. Lhasa looks more like the market towns one finds around the borders of Thailand or in southern China—the East Asian versions of Dodge City in the old Wild West—teeming with Chinese carpetbaggers, hucksters, hookers, gamblers, hoodlums, corrupt officials, and other desperados lusting after quick cash. At the same time, as though from another planet, there are the Tibetan pilgrims, fingering their beads, spinning their prayer wheels, and…

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