As the delta variant foils the world’s plans to return to normal, the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from promoting domestic tourism to Tibet and Xinjiang. The surge in COVID cases has allowed the government to assert its control over the regions and restrict local communities’ access to their own heritage.
The increase of Han Chinese tourism, the majority ethnic group in China, to Tibet and Xinjiang is part of the CCP’s broader mission to wholly assimilate the peripheral regions. Today, the CCP forcibly dilutes the cultural and religious identities of minority ethnicities. Distinctive identities that are unable to be assimilated are consequently ostracized, punished and eradicated.
The CCP has a strategy of commodifying the culture of ethnic minorities in an attempt to neutralize their unique and distinct identities. The government deceivingly appears to embrace the culture’s distinctiveness by propping it up as a product for consumer consumption. While enacting policies that disenfranchise local communities, with a second brush, the CCP paints a picture of espousing cultural diversity through carefully choreographed experiences to welcome Han tourists.
Besides amplifying Han influence within these regions, the influx of Chinese tourists with money ready to spend forces local economies to become dependent on tourism. The historical examples of other provinces predominantly filled with ethnic minorities (particularly Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou) provide insight into the potential future endgame of the CCP in Tibet and Xinjiang, in which culture is a tool to profit from tourism and peddle the misleading notion that the CCP is accepting of ethnic diversity. The modern veneer of “colorful” and “exotically charming” borderlands filled with diverse cultures belies a history of bloody and brutal ethnic violence.
In August 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrated the 70th anniversary of what the CCP refers to as the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet. In actuality, the trip celebrated the success of the government’s efforts to erect a facade of Tibet as an idyllic site of natural beauty and polished development. The visit signaled the CCP’s confidence in its ability to erase the region’s long history of state violence and religious repression and repackage it as a natural wonder filled with “mysterious” scenery and “mystical” monasteries.
Tibet’s tourism industry is geared to Han Chinese tourists and focuses on the easily-digestible and politically neutral themes of physical landscapes, as well as the watered-down elements of Tibetan culture, omitting all meaningful aspects of culture and religion. Tourists can only visit Tibet with a tourist agency on government-approved tours that provide only a glimpse into what the government wants outsiders to see. Tourists who seek culturally enriching and authentic experiences buy kitsch mementos and partake in photoshoots in traditional garbs. Other tourists disrespectfully trample on sacred prayer flags or take inappropriate photos with religious statues. One Tibetan tour guide lamented the tourists’ lack of interest in learning the history of the temples and monasteries.
During the pandemic, the Chinese government has managed to further squeeze out local Tibetans from accessing their own sacred sites. At Jokhang Temple, located in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, visiting hours to the sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site have been decreased to three and a half hours for locals in order to accommodate the rising number of tourists. This comes as surrounding areas experience rising COVID-19 cases, which has prompted the government to tell Tibetans to limit their religious practice rather than Han tourists to limit their travels. In fact, tourism numbers to Tibet have soared despite the ongoing pandemic. The move suggests the Chinese government views Tibet only as a means to line its own pockets.
Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, tourism has resumed even as crimes against humanity take place in internment camps nearby.
The Chinese government continues to commercialize Uyghur culture while attacking Uyghur life. As Uyghurs get arrested for styling themselves in an overtly “Uyghur” manner, Uyghur girls are forced to don their traditional clothing and dance for tourists in the streets of Kashgar. Important Uyghur traditions, which were previously banned, have been re-organized to incorporate large performances for tourist viewership. Many Uyghurs express disgust at how sacred rituals have lost their sanctity and been reduced to superficial entertainment.
The government has also poured money into modifying the physical landscape to present an opulent attraction sanitized of any overt religious overtones. The government has invested in constructing a 9D glass-bottomed bridge and luxury homestays while modifying or outright destroying mosques, shrines and other religious sites. In one incident, a mosque was demolished in its entirety in order to build a Hilton hotel.
The Chinese government re-appropriates Uyghur culture to further the CCP’s message of counter-terrorism, a euphemism for unfettered suppression. In a twisted display of entertainment, the government commissions local Uyghur artists to put on performances typically involving singing and dancing as a part of “law enforcement.” The government also persistently weaponizes Uyghur music and dance by showcasing performances in propaganda videos and public service announcements to promulgate a false image of “happy dancing Uyghurs.” The messaging of the propaganda videos echo the promotional language and use of lush scenic imagery to encourage tourism in Tibet. The widely circulated pictures of paradisal landscapes with smiling Uyghur children hide decades of unprecedented repression that has only ramped up with modern technology.
The Chinese government is turning religious and ethnic identities from a powerful unifier of minorities into a marketable and profitable commodity. Through the coupling of violent religious suppression and the commercialization of heritage, Tibetan and Uyghur identities will no longer be a threat to the CCP but rather a performative affectation to be enjoyed by Chinese tourists. The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang may forewarn of a future in which Tibetans, Uyghurs and China’s other 53 ethnic minorities will stand only as a hollow cultural vanguard with no purpose except as props for the regime.
Joyce Ho is a junior researcher at the Human Rights Foundation (@hrf).