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The Heart of Tibet Is Being Radically Changed into a Shopping Center

The Barkhor, the circumambulation road around the Jokhang Temple
The Barkhor, the circumambulation road around the Jokhang Temple. (all images courtesy Tsering Woeser)

The city of Lhasa, up on the Tibetan Plateau, is the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China, as well as a spiritual center as the home of the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred of Tibet’s temples. As such it is an often clamorous place of both protest and prayer. Yet much of that may be silenced by a shopping mall.

A plan for the Barkhor Shopping Mall, currently under construction.
A plan for the Barkhor Shopping Mall, currently under construction.

The construction of the “Barkhor Mall” in the Old City of Lhasa is part of a project that was announced back in December  as a seven-month preservation plan costing $1.2 billion, at least according to the state-owned China Tibetan News. Jokhang Temple, which dates back to the 7th century, is a major symbol in the Tibetan protests against the Chinese government, and the Barkhor area has experienced significant unrest, particularly in 2008 where violent protests left 12 people dead. There has also been the rise in self-immolations in recent years, including in front of the Jokhang Temple. Turning 150,000 square meters of the area into a shopping zone would act as a quieting shroud of commercialism.

As Beijing-based Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser wrote in an open letter on the commercialization:

The space in front of the Jokhang, which has borne witness to so much change over the ages, has no more of the pilgrims from Kham and Amdo who prostrate themselves all the way from the far borders to Lhasa; no more lamp pavilions in which thousands and tens of thousands of butter lamp offerings were lit every day. Only snipers poised on the roofs of Tibetans’ homes, and fully armed military sweeps; only the opening of one massive government-business sector joint venture shopping mall after another, each with inflatable blood-red plastic columns before their doors, flaunting the vulgarity and invasiveness of these new upstart operations.

Contrary to reports from Tibet Post, she assured readers that Jokhang Temple has not been destroyed and is not planned to be destroyed. Yet the area around it will be overtaken by parking for the shopping center and all of the street vendors are planned to be moved into the new mall. Barkhor’s old street fronts will be morphed into one uniform front with sleek new signboards. According to the South China Morning Post, a petition started by Woeser against the construction on May 3 was rapidly censored after its popularity skyrocketed on Weibo.

Destruction of structures in the Lhasa Old City
Destruction of structures in the Lhasa Old City

It seems counterintuitive that the government would implement this plan to demolish much of the character of the Old City that draws tourists in order to attract tourists to a commercial zone. Yet this destructive commercialization of monuments and architecture in China has been a continuing problem, not just in Tibet. Elliot Sperling, who translated Woeser’s letter  and is a specialist in Sino-Tibetan relations, an advisor to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and an associate professor at at Indiana University, explained to me that:

” … the destruction of old monuments in order to meet a Chinese tourist or commercial aesthetic has been ongoing in the [People’s Republic of China]. That’s why Woeser refers to what was done in Lijiang. The old city of Kashgar, in Xinjiang was similarly dismantled. Early on, one of the first things the CCP did after establishing the PRC was to tear down the century-old walls of Beijing. In this case [of Lhasa] it will make for a China-friendly sanitized exoticism for the façade of the Tibetan capital’s oldest quarter.”

Tibetans walking on the Barkhor amid construction
Tibetans walking on the Barkhor amid construction

While this modernization is a radical change for Lhasa, the city has been emptying of its traditional structures at a detrimental rate in recent years, with the government working against those attempting to restore and preserve them, according to Woeser. Although as she writes, the shopping mall won’t exactly turn the Barkhor area into a “deserted street”:

On the contrary, it will become a bustling street, existing only for the benefit of tourists. But it will never again be the street of those Tibetans who circumambulate, come on pilgrimage, and prostrate themselves. Even if there manage to be pilgrims making prostrations there, they will simply serve to liven things up as background for the tourists, as one disaster follows another, winding down to a pathetic and miserable end for Lhasa.

More images and information on the ongoing commercialization of Lhasa are on the High Peaks Pure Energy website.

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