18 January 2021

Travelling in Tibet in the 1990s: colonialism and neocolonialism

Naked Spirits: A Journey Into Occupied Tibet

Naked Spirits: A Journey Into Occupied Tibet by Adrian Abbotts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read Magic and Mystery in Tibet, written by a western visitor who illegally entered Tibet in the early 20th century. This book is about a couple of western visitors to Tibet 75 years later, when it was under Chinese occupation. And at the same time I was reading Orientalism, on how to deconstruct western views of "the Orient".

The earlier visitor, [author Alexandra David-Neel], had a couple of advantages. She could speak Tibetan, and she had also spent several years in Tibetan monasteries. And though she was an illegal immigrant, she was seeing a relatively independent Tibet, where Tibetans were free to be themselves. She was, nevertheless, also seeing Tibet through western eyes, and even, at one point, described herself as an Orientalist.

But the authors of Naked Spirits were tourists in the 1990s, when Tibet had been under Chinese rule for 40 years, and while foreign tourists could roam relatively freely in China proper, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was closed to all but expensive organised tour groups, who were kept isolated from the Tibetan people, and only allowed to see what their tour guides would allow them to see. Adrian Abbotts and his wife Maria therefore spent a great deal of time applying for permits to go to this or that place, and describe their dealings with Chinese officialdom and bureaucracy, and at that point it all seemed very familiar indeed. Tibet under Chinese rule reminded me of nothing so much as Namibia under South African rule, which I experienced from I went to Namibia in 1969 until I was deported from there in 1972.

The parallels between Chinese rule in Tibet and South African rule in Namibia were amazing, especially the attitudes and reactions of government officials to whom one applied for various permits and permissions to visit or travel through places. There were many parts of the book where I thought "Been there, done that." And Adrian Abbots and his wife evidently learned the lesson that we learned in Namibia: it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

Also similar was the naked racism. The white South African rulers thought themselves superior to the native Namibians just as the Han Chinese rulers saw themselves as superior to the native Tibetans, and tried to make their language dominant.

There are differences too. In Namibia the South African rulers at least pretended to a kind of respect for local cultures, and encouraged them to "develop on their own lines" (the lines, of course, being lad down by the South African government). In Tibet there was no such pretence. Within Tibet all higher education was in Chinese and for Chinese. Tibetans who wanted higher education had to travel to China proper, and be immersed for several years in Han culture before they could return home, a policy that seemed more akin to that of Sheldon Jackson in Alaska than to the South African Department of Bantu Education.

So the book was particularly interesting to read in the light of the recent growth of Chinese economic activity in Africa, which looks suspiciously like neocolonialism. This includes the destruction of Namibian forest by Chinese logging, and, just over the border in Botswana, the threat of fracking in the Okavango Delta by a Canadian mining firm. It doesn't matter if the neocolonialism is Western or Eastern, there is little difference.

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1 comment:

Dim Lamp said...

The Chinese have very little respect for human rights, even of their own citizens, never mind foreigners, and even less respect for responsible stewardship of the environment.


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