The “Disneyfication of Tibet”

As China’s inbound international tourism continues to grow along with the numbers of potential domestic ticket buyers, China is experiencing an amusement park boom, and is expected to have more theme parks than the USA by 2020. Last month, it was reported that the construction of a $4.7 billion theme park on the outskirts of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa had begun. The Princess Wencheng Theme Park (named after the Tang Dynasty princess who married a Tibetan king with peace as her dowry) will emphasize historical ties between China and Tibet, and is part of a government strategy to increase tourism in the area. In July, Xinhua reported on the upcoming park, its theme, and its goals to enhance tourism:

The park, with a planned area of 800 hectares 2 km from downtown Lhasa, is expected to be completed in three to five years, said Ma Xinming, deputy mayor of Lhasa city, as the building project launched on Sunday.

The park is designed to improve Tibet’s tourism credentials and be a landmark of its cultural industry, Ma said.

[…]The culture and tourism park will also include an “Art City”, home to displays of Tibetan handicrafts and medicine, and a “Folk City”, where tourists can get a taste of local life and buyfolk goods.

Cultural innovation, business and residential districts will also be incorporated into the project.

Construction of the park surely occurs to the chagrin of some local ethnic Tibetans, 51 of whom have protested Chinese rule by self-immolation since 2009 – the latest two cases in this drastic wave of protests occurred just yesterdayVoice of America asked Free Tibet activists and a scholar of Tibet to comment on the park’s construction:

Tenzin Dorjee, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet in New York, is not impressed, noting that the project comes as Tibetan activists continue to protest Chinese dominance of their homeland.

“They are spending these billions of dollars in building a theme park in Tibet at a time when Tibetans are setting themselves on fire for freedom,” Tenzin said. “And this is China’s way of not addressing the problem, not addressing any grievances.”

[…]Stephanie Brigden, director of the London-based Free Tibet campaign, is another critic of the Chinese project.

“When you look at the proposed scale of the theme park, it’s vast and it’s … a strategy of ‘Disneyfication’ of Tibet,” Brigden said. “It’s not one of sharing and celebrating Tibetan culture.”

[…]Tom Grunfeld, professor of Central and East Asian Studies at the State University of New York, acknowledged that the project probably would create jobs for Tibetans, but that it was still self-serving.

“Most of the Tibetan economy is funded by the … central government of China,” he said, “So anything that can boost the economy is going to help the central government.”[…]

The VOA report cites an op-ed published last month in the Global Times, which offers academic references to counter Western media critique of the project:

Such criticism, almost made instinctively, make it doubtful whether the commentators have really been to Tibet themselves. Otherwise, why do they keep voicing a clichéd perspective no matter what changes have taken place in reality?

Ingo Nemwig, a German sinologist and ethnologist who conducted field studies in Tibet, saw why it’s ludicrous to assert Tibetans are being assimilated by Han immigrants. Just take a look at the local population structure.

In a prefecture Nemwig visited in 2002, some 20 Han people lived among about 50,000 Tibetans. In fact, Tibetans remain the overwhelming majority in the autonomous region. Latest official statistics show that Tibetans make up 90.48 percent of the local population, while Han only 8.17 percent.

As Nemwig pointed out, the constant hyping of “cultural genocide theory” is actually related to the intentions of a few Tibetan politicians in exile, who try to gain influence in the name of anti-assimilation.

For more on ethnic tourism in China, see “China’s Han Flock to Theme Parks Featuring Minorities,” via CDT. Also see prior CDT coverage of TibetTibetan culturetourism, and amusement parks.