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Tourism: A ‘soft' weapon for Chinese hegemony

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Tourism: A ‘soft' weapon for Chinese hegemony

While the world talks of Xi's ‘dream', waves after waves of Chinese visitors can suddenly be seen pouring along the Belt and Road. Is Delhi aware of the time bomb at its gates?

A Tibet Work Forum is a conference attended by several hundreds of officials, including the entire politburo, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), representatives from different Ministries, as well as local satraps; held every five to 10 years, it usually decides the fate of the Roof of the World. The last forum was held in Beijing in 2015, but it is during the previous one in January 2010 that the destiny of Tibet changed, probably forever.

It was then decided to transform Tibet into a paradise for tourists, a Disneyland of Snows, by bringing millions of visitors to the plateau, killing several birds with just one stone.

It would give the People’s Republic of China a good image after the beating it received in the world media following the 2008 unrest on the Roof of the World; Tibetans would be financially better off; they would be ‘occupied’ to entertaining tourists; their heritage would be ‘protected’ and massive infrastructure would be built, keeping an eye on the need of the PLA to ‘defend the borders’ (with India).

The decision once taken, the Chinese propaganda started moving. Chinanews.com, a Government website wrote: “Tibet with its mystery is the spiritual Garden of Eden and is longed by travelers home and abroad. Only by stepping on the snowy plateau, can one be baptised by its splendor, culture, folklore, life, snow mountains, saint mountains, sacred lakes, residences with local characteristics and charming landscape.”

Tibet fast became the largest entertainment park in the world; thousand times larger than Disneyland. The Government in Beijing sold the Land of Snows as the ultimate ‘indigenous’ spot for the Chinese people to spend their holidays, it became Tibet’s Unique Selling Proposition. The leadership in Beijing had found a more sophisticated way to submerge the Tibetan population under waves of Han Chinese.

Tibet’s unique assets were promoted: The beauty of the landscape, the imposing mountain ranges, the purity of the air and the rivers, the dry pure sky (especially when compared to the sky of China’s great metropolis); Tibet is the ideal place to visit and have a break from the fast pace of the polluted Mainland.

The second advantage is the rich historical past of the Roof of the World, the Land of the Lamas. In Tibet, you can find everything, explained the Chinese propaganda: The monasteries and nunneries, seats of a wisdom lost in the mainland; the folkloric yak or snow-lion dances; the beautiful colourful handicrafts; the exotic food, you name it …with a couple of millions of local Tibetans guiding you through the mega-museum.

In 2016, six years after the launch of the scheme, 25 millions Han ‘tourists’ poured in Lhasa and few other places in Central and Southern Tibet.

The Tibet success story gave ideas to the Communist leadership in Beijing; the experiment was worth emulating abroad, even if in a different context; tourism could definitively become the ‘soft’ weapon of the Chinese cultural hegemony in Asia. While the world talks of President Xi Jinping’s ‘dream’, waves, after waves of Chinese visitors can suddenly be seen pouring along the Belt and Road.

Everywhere, the arrival of the Chinese tourists have the same effect, at least in the new Asian Paradises; they help building a much-needed infrastructure for the host country, though in a later stage, they create dependency on the Chinese tourists.

I recently visited Indonesia; the country is not exempt of the new Chinese strategy. By attracting 10 million tourists from China by 2019, the country plans to participate in Xi Jinping'’s ambitious initiative. The latest data from the Indonesian Central Statistics Agency show that 1.43 million Chinese tourists visited Bali in 2016, representing a 25 per cent annual increase over the previous year.

The 10 million-benchmark may be difficult to achieve for the local tourist industry, however, for Indonesia, tourism remains a source of hefty revenue, while for China, it means a presence in South-East Asia. The same scenario can be seen in Nepal, Sri Lanka or the Maldives.

On May 26, Xinhua reported that the Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents (NATTA) and China Chamber of Tourism signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Kathmandu to promote tourism between the two countries. According to a Press statement, the Chinese side pledged to help in making NATTA’s tourism promotional activities, a success. The NATTA now plans to organise a China sales mission in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing from June 7-17 in China in coordination with Nepal Tourism Board and Nepali embassy in Beijing.

Once the train will reach Kyirong, at the border between Nepal and Tibet, these plans will take an exponential growth. India may soon have many China towns in its neighbourhood. Is Delhi aware of the time bomb at its gates?

In September 2016, The South China Morning Post quoted a report released by the China Tourism Academy; some 133 million Mainland tourists were to travel abroad in 2016, a figure up to an 11.5 per cent rise on 2015. Traditionally, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were the first choices for Chinese tourists, followed by Thailand, South Korea and Japan. But lately Asian nations such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, or even Bhutan have seen a double-digit growth in arrivals. This trend is bound to grow. This brings the other aspect of mass Chinese tourism.

The Agence France Press (AFP) recently called tourism as China’s new weapon in the economic war; it explains: “Slapping import bans on products like mangoes, coal and salmon has long been China’s way of punishing countries that refuse to toe its political line. But Beijing has shown that it can also hurt others by cutting a lucrative Chinese export, tourism.”

The article quotes the example of South Korea over an US anti-missile shield and the ban on Chinese tour groups from visiting Korea. Similarly, tourism to Taiwan has also fallen sharply as relations across the strait worsened.  Countries submitting to China’s demands are rewarded and those who do not ‘behave’ are punished.

Pakistan wants to jump in the bandwagon, earlier this month The Dawn published the ‘hidden’ report on CPEC. One of the chapters speaks about the development of a ‘coastal tourism’ industry; a long belt of coastal enjoyment industry that includes yacht wharfs, cruise homeports, nightlife, city parks, public squares, theaters, golf courses and spas, hot spring hotels and water sports. The report adds: “for the development of coastal vacation products, Islamic culture, historical culture, folk culture and marine culture shall all be integrated.”

This may not happen, but can you imagine if tens of thousands of Chinese tourists start arriving in Gilgit Baltistan, invited by the Islamabad Government. It will mean an International airport in the area, new roads, hotels, entertainment places, etc. What will Delhi do? The time has perhaps come to think about this likely eventuality.

(The writer is a China expert and an author of books on India-China relations as well as on Tibet)

 
 
 
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