LHASA, Tibet — For the 50th anniversary of Tibet’s creation as an "autonomous region" in 1965, the Chinese government wants to show off the Buddhist holy land as a happy, thriving place that has benefited from Beijing's rule.
The only problem? That's not exactly the case. Among other things, for years the government has allowed prostitution to fester across Tibet, pockmarking cities and pilgrimage sites with gaudy red-light districts that have corroded their cultural and religious identity.
The looming anniversary has finally forced the government to begin cracking down on the open prostitution in Tibet’s streets, clubs, and karaoke parlors.
But a visit to Lhasa and other cities shows there’s still work to be done.
In the park north of the Lhasa River, Buddhist pilgrims kneel and bow, making a kilometer-long journey toward Potala Palace. Some pause to sit and meditate under the trees, prayer wheels spinning peacefully in their hands.
But 10 yards away, the scene changes. Once you cross a bridge spanning the river, passing colorful prayer flags, you begin to encounter flyers on walls, poles and bridges that invite you to “Spend a Night With Hot Girls.” Most have pictures of scantily clad women.
This is today’s Tibet, a sacred place scarred by a mixture of asceticism and lust.
Over the last 20 years, the government has developed the city's two islands into entertainment centers. By now, there are few signs of the original Lhasa. There are Sichuan hotpot and barbecue restaurants, shops selling Beijing cloth shoes, bars with English names and Chinese tourists wearing Nepalese clothes — a recently trendy look. The only signs of being in Tibet are the traditionally dressed, middle-aged Tibetan women who shop in the fruit and meat markets. Most of the shops’ owners are from China’s inner provinces: Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi.
But even more than the restaurants, it is the colorful lights from clubs, small hotels, bars, and massage parlors and the girls in them that attract all the attention—and tourist dollars.
At night, the seedier areas are still active. Men in a black car roll out at the “Sexy Cat VIP Club" and are met by five Han Chinese girls in skimpy outfits. Down the street the Mingdu Business Club and Naiwuling KTV are open for business, with glowing neon signs, pulsing music, and girls smiling to passersby through the glass windows and doors.
But there are also dark and empty storefronts. One Sichuan restaurant owner, 54-year-old Chen Zhimin complained that, “This year the business here is no good. Since the spring, Tibet has tried to suppress ‘illegal entertainment.’ mainly prostitution. Xi Jinping is supposed to come soon this summer. Before the crackdown, most of our guests were coming for the ‘illegal entertainment’ in the street. Now without it, and plus the earthquake in Nepal, my business dropped by at least half.”
The mandate to clean up Tibet’s prostitution seems to have come from above. At the National People’s Congress held this March, Premier Li Keqiang urged local officials “to organize well the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Tibet Autonomous Region.” In the months after, officials in the region have been reminded to “make the celebration a big success” and “renovate the environment.”
This has required a reversal of previously tolerant attitudes. In Lhasa, prostitution thrived for years despite the heavy presence of security forces. Since the riots of 2008, when Tibetans attacked Han Chinese and looted Chinese-owned shops, strict security checks have been in place wherever a crowd could form. Every corner in the old town has a 24-hour, on-duty police station. Red banners hang from bridges and walls, urging people to “Strongly Commit to the Leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” “Follow the CCP and Live a Better Life.” LED billboards remind the people of President Xi Jinping’s belief that “It’s essential to govern the border in order to govern the country, and it’s essential to stabilize Tibet in order to stabilize the borders.”
“For a long time, the government did not touch the prostitution here,” said a driver in Shigatse, Tibet's second largest city, 300 kilometers from Lhasa. He declined to give his name out of concerns for his safety. “They turned a blind eye. Prostitution was used as a game, as a way to reduce the pressure here."
But now business is hurting. I asked a male friend to dial a number from a prostitution flyer. The woman’s harsh voice came quickly through the phone receiver. “Do you need service?” was her way of saying hello. Her Mandarin was mediocre and Sichuan-accented. She said she would come to the door and refused to tell us her location. “You don’t have to know where I am now, I guarantee I will arrive in 20 minutes. Recently it's dangerous, but I can leave my home immediately if you decide to pay,” she said. When my friend refused, the woman wouldn’t be so easily denied. “Have some fun,” she urged. “I haven’t had business for a whole day.”
“Now they don’t care to prostitute as openly as before,” said Chen, the restaurant owner. “More than 10,000 prostitutes have left Lhasa. They’ve gone back to their hometown, or to smaller cities and towns in Tibet to hide during the crackdown before this year’s big anniversary ceremony. And Lhasa is a small city—you can imagine how strongly it’s affected the local economy.” Chen was laughing. “Clothing shops, restaurants, the tourist industry, everything is linked with prostitution in a way, don’t you agree?”
Prostitution is still going strong in Shigatse, however. In Shigatse’s nightlife district, karaoke guards usher in guests from plateless black cars into the neon-lit interior of Guohao Business Club, where 3,000 girls were once said to have worked.
Most of the clientele for these clubs are working men, many of them Han Chinese who moved to Tibet to help “build up and develop” the region, or were attracted by the business opportunities. Most left behind families in the big cities. Occasionally you also see Tibetan men entering the clubs, but never wearing their traditional clothes.
The driver said that most of his nighttime customers were men going back and forth between the clubs, hotels and karaoke parlors. “They are officials, businessmen, even soldiers who secretly escape from their compound in the night.”
“But I can understand” why there’s such demand for prostitution, he said. “Many of the people who come to ‘help construct Tibet’ either have a wife in other cities, or are forbidden by the army from having a relationship with Tibetan women. In a way, prostitution helps to promote stability, not undermine it.”