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Tibet Trouble

The government of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has recently recruited more than a hundred Chinese tour guides. The appointments represent a new threat to the employment of Tibetan tour guides, who are generally more popular with Western tourists.

Tibetan tour guides are under increasing political pressure, reflecting the authorities’ concern about the “security risks” involved when Tibetans talk to foreigners about their culture, history and the Dalai Lama. The authorities now require tour guides in the TAR to have a middle school certificate, which makes it difficult for Tibetans who have learnt English and studied Tibetan culture in exile communities in India to gain employment as tour guides on their return to Tibet.

Tour guides in Tibet are also required to pass a political examination. According to a copy of the examination paper obtained by Tibet Information Network (TIN), they are required to endorse China’s position over Taiwan, accept that all of Tibet’s resources belong to the Chinese state, and abide by a “voluntary code of conduct” which involves “defending the interests of the country and the honour of the nationality”.

The move by the authorities to recruit new Chinese tour guides appears to indicate a continued concern about security risks involved with Tibetans who work with foreign tourists, but may also reflect a desire to cater for the increasing numbers of Chinese visitors to Tibet. A Western tourist who has just returned from Tibet said that hundreds of Chinese had applied for the new jobs as tour guides in Tibet and that the new guides were well educated and knowledgeable about Tibetan history and culture. “They seem to know English well and have studied Tibetan history and Buddhism,” the tourist told TIN. “There is a real possibility that they will start to replace Tibetan tour guides. It may become more difficult for Westerners to travel in Tibet with Tibetan tour guides.”

In the late 1980s the Tibetan authorities attempted to increase the proportion of Chinese guides in Lhasa, but this proved to be unpopular with Western tour groups and was suspended. The requirement for all tour guides to have a middle school certificate from a Chinese or Tibetan school appears to be a further step by the authorities to exclude Tibetans educated in India from employment as tour guides. In 1997 the authorities refused to renew the permits of more than 60 Tibetan tour guides because they had visited India without permission.

The Chinese government has been concerned for a number of years about the security risks involving Tibetans who work with foreign tourists. In June 1994 the government announced in its annual work report that tour guides should be watched in order to “put an end to the acts of some tour guides in colluding with foreign tourists to harm state security”. A Tibetan from Lhasa told TIN: “These people [Tibetan tour guides] are tolerated because they speak English and are necessary to trade and tourism, but they are closely monitored and under suspicion.” A considerable number of the 3,000 or more Tibetans who travel each year to India, where the Tibetan government in exile is based, return home after attending courses in English language and Tibetan culture – skills that are at a premium in the tourist trade in Tibet. The trips are carried out secretly, but in the last four years increased border controls have allowed police in Tibet to identify almost all returnees, many of whom are now detained and interrogated for up to three months on their return to Tibet.

Border security has intensified further following the escape into exile in January of 14-year old Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa. The examination paper for tour guides recently obtained by TIN includes questions on tourism regulations and politics. Topics in the recent questionnaire include the following: “Capitalism and socialism are here to stay – true or false?” (The correct answer is: true). Tour guides also have to specify in the exam the “voluntary code of conduct for individual tour guides”, which are as follows: “to defend the interests of the country and the honour of the nationality” and “to avoid undermining the interests of the country and honour of the nationality either through action or irresponsible talk.” A further question requires tour guides to complete the second half of the following sentence: “All that is found within the territory of the People’s Republic of China” with the following statement: “everything that exists, whether on land, underground, forests, rivers and oceans, is the property of the state”. Tour guides also have to demonstrate their understanding of the “One China” policy in the following question: “Are discussions on the issue of Taiwan something that can be resolved within the parameters of a ‘One China’ policy?” The correct answer to this question is, simply, yes.

The authorities began to set exams for tour guides in 1996, when Tibetan tour guides had to sit an exam over a 20-day period, administered by security police and the Tourism Bureau from Beijing and Tibet. Regulations for tour guides stress “stability” An internal document issued in March 1999 and obtained by TIN states that travel agencies in Tibet dealing with foreign visitors are required to follow strict regulations due to concerns over “stability” in the region. The document, which is a “letter of management responsibility for personnel from outside our borders for units in Lhasa hosting foreigners”, states that agencies dealing with foreigners must help to “put a stop to [the foreigners’] participation in activities which may be harmful to our national interest”. The document warns that travel agencies and tour guides may be held responsible for “incidents involving foreigners”.

Travel agencies are also required to notify the local county Public Security Bureau within 24 hours if they are escorting foreigners to a county or township in Tibet. The letter states that foreigners who carry out activities “which are incompatible with their status, such as the illegal purchase of cultural relics or having complicated relationships with people” are of particular concern to the authorities. The nature of the “complicated relationships with people” is not specified in the document but could refer to conversations between foreigners and Tibetans about political subjects such as Tibetan independence or the Dalai Lama. Individual tour guides can face serious difficulties if their clients breach the rules – and sometimes even if they do not. A 20-year old former tour guide from Tibet told TIN that he was interrogated by security police following the departure of a group of tourists from Tibet. The Tibetan, who is now in exile, told TIN: “I escorted some photographers around a monastery where they had been given permission to take photographs. I realised that people from the State Security department were following me. After the photographers had left, I was summoned to their office and subjected to an interrogation. I was asked where I had taken the group for the three days and what I had told them. They also questioned some of my colleagues. Finally the [monastery] Democratic Management Committee persuaded them to let us go.”

The Chinese National Tourism Administration states that 87,039 foreigners and 5,861 overseas Chinese visited Tibet in 1998 (Yearbook of China Tourism Statistics, 1999). 14,497 were from the United States and 5,362 were from Britain. There was a 17.9% increase in 1998 over the year before in the number of international tourists visiting the TAR.

This feature was researched and written on behalf of the Tibet Information network. In London they are at 188-196 Old Street, EC1V 9FR ph: +44 (020)7 814 9011 fax: +44 (020)7 814 9015 email: [email protected] while their US contact details are ph:+1 (0)307 733 4670 fax: +1 (0)307 739-2501 email: [email protected]. For further information take a look at their Web site:

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