Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Fighting with Fur: Identity Disputes in the Tibetan Plateau

By Max ZimmermanPublished November 8, 2013

The Tibetan plateau has been the home to a dispute that has lasted almost 70 years now between the local population and the Chinese government. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ascended to power, the Tibetans have endured its attempts to commodify Tibetan culture, traditions, and values as well as replace them with those of the mainland. Now, Tibetans are speaking up -- using fur.
By Max Zimmerman, Published 11/8/13

The Tibetan plateau has been the home to a dispute that has lasted almost 70 years now between the local population and the Chinese government. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ascended to power, the Tibetans have endured its attempts to replace Tibetan culture, traditions, and values with those of the mainland. The CCP's proclivity for uniformity has created a battle of identities with the CCP's rigid unitary sovereignty pitted against Tibetan culture and traditions. This identity battle has been waged on a number of different stages often manifesting in physical violence as exemplified in the 2008 protests. Identity conflicts waged over territorial sovereignty, systems of justice, and local leadership are familiar and recurring battles in the Tibetan plateau. However, a new and unexpected frontier has emerged in recent years where the battle between identities is being played out. 

The last few years have seen a wave of Chinese tourism to Tibet. Tibetan temples and highlands are renowned for their beauty and religious significance; Labrang Monastery is even vying for a UNESCO World Heritage listing. In addition the Chinese government has recently started to invest substantially in resorts and other tourist accommodations and amenities in order to attract the exponentially growing number of Chinese looking for vacation spots. It is in this realm that Tibetans are now also expanding their fight. 

The rise of tourism to Tibet by Chinese nationals has prompted the Chinese government to start more heavily regulating the region in order to better control Tibetan culture and traditions. Naturally, this has greatly angered the Tibetans as they feel even greater constraints on their own culture. The battle in Tibet has been over autonomy but this autonomy has been motivated in large part by a desire to maintain their ethnic independence and cultural integrity. The latest surge of Tibetan grievances against the Chinese once again surrounds the issue of maintaining their culture and identity. The Tibetans are angered by Chinese attempts to not only commodify and exploit their land but also by their attempts to commodify their culture. The Tibetans are obviously, not well endowed enough to use force against the Chinese but there have been movements aimed at protesting the commodification of Tibetan culture. Perhaps one of the more notable movements was the Dalai Lama's decree that Tibetan's should burn their fur pelts in response to the growing number of poached animals as a result of increased tourism. 

This decree was far reaching as it undermined CCP authority and Chinese commodity culture. By following the Dalai Lama's decree the Tibetans were showing that they were willing to oppose the Chinese government by denouncing their policies and undermining their push for increased tourism to the region. In addition, the burning of the pelts was a means by which the Tibetans could decommidify themselves. This decommodification has two very important consequences. The first is that it by reducing the ability of the Chinese to commodify their culture the Tibetans are reducing the ability of the Chinese to influence their everyday lives. The second consequence is that decommidication defies the Chinese government's emphasis on commodity culture, which is viewed as prerequisite for modernization. Thus by burning fur pelts in response to the Chinese government's push for increased Tibetan tourism, the Tibetans are taking a direct stab at Chinese national values such as commodification and modernization as well as defying CCP policies directly. Movements like this show the play contrasting identities of the two parties and how thisconflict is manifests itself material but has its roots in identity crises. 

Yeh, Emily. "Blazing Pelts and Burning Passions: Nationalism, Cultural Politics, and Spectacular Decommodification in Tibet." Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 72. Issue 02 (2013): 319-44. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.