Is Tibet safe for travellers (and their Tibetan friends)?
February 26, 2007 8:06 AM   Subscribe

Is it safe to for a college student, who has never been to a "developing" country before to travel to Tibet to do an independent research project there?

There is a program at my school which gives away $3,000 grants for independent research projects in Asia. I was assured that I could pick any place not on the U.S. State Department's advisory list. Because I took a class on Tibet last semester, I chose Tibet and a project on Sino-Globalization.

I had an interview with the director of Study Abroad in Asia. He seemed to think I was putting myself in danger ("foreigners have been arrested in Tibet"). He then said that I would be putting Tibetans at risk of being arrested themselves for talking to them. (He recounted a story of trying to talk to a Tibetan man near the Potala Palace, but having police scare the man away.)

What are your experiences? Do you know of any specific info on the web that answers this?

I think the concerns are my safety and the safety of Tibetans.
posted by matkline to Travel & Transportation around China (13 answers total)
I think you are right to be concerned. There should be no problem with going to a country not on the state department list. The problem starts when you pick a project that is political in nature and that will surely incur the ire of the host government. I advise you to change your project. Or switch locations to someplace like Mongolia or one of the Asian republics where an active government is place that is opposed to Sinoglobalization and where you be likely to be arrestd (and more importantly, where innocent people won't suffer because you talked to them). Also, I advise you (as a former anthropology major who in her time traveled to a developing country and interviewed people in rural locations): Write your notes in code, never write down the names, addresses or locations of your interviewees, make carbon copies and send them abroad in case your notes get seized as you leave the country.

When I was your age one of my professors mentioned a medical study that went door to door. On the sides of the people they interviewed they left notes. Later the government at the time, used those notes to arrest people. You do NOT want that to happen, be careful and maintain anonymity throughout your study so that the only one at risk is YOU.

Finally, assume if you go to Tibet that you will be followed and watch and that all your phone calls will be tapped. Act accordingly.
posted by zia at 8:28 AM on February 26, 2007

Is this something you could discuss with the professor who taught your class? I think you should discuss this with someone who has done research in Tibet.

I don't know anything about Tibet specifically, but my brother has spent significant amounts of time in China, and he said that while he never felt in any danger himself and was pretty sure that the Chinese government would not want to create an international incident by hassling him, he was acutely aware of the possibility of getting friends and friendly strangers in hot water.

Finally, is there any chance that you could find a project that works with Tibetan people somewhere other than Tibet? I knew someone ages ago who had done a summer research project working with Tibetan refugees in, I think, Nepal. I don't know what the travel situation is like in Nepal these days, but it's something to look into if you don't want to run afoul of the Chinese government.
posted by craichead at 8:28 AM on February 26, 2007


Or switch locations to someplace like Mongolia or one of the Asian republics where an active government is place that is opposed to Sinoglobalization and where you be likely NOT to be arrestd (and more importantly, where innocent people won't suffer because you talked to them).

posted by zia at 8:29 AM on February 26, 2007

oops again!

On the sides of the houses of the people they interviewed they left notes. Later the government at the time, used those notes to arrest people.
posted by zia at 8:31 AM on February 26, 2007

You probably wouldn't even get a proper visa/permit if you stated what your true intended purpose.

Chatting with a local Tibetan in Lhasa about sensitive issues will probably get him/her in more trouble than you. This is less true in rural parts of far western Sichuan/southern Qinghai, and of course not true at all in Nepal or northern India.
posted by alidarbac at 8:50 AM on February 26, 2007

It would be one sided, but consider the Tibetan government-in-exile and community in India as an alternative. You'd be much safer, working with Tibetans, and, oddly enough will likely be exposed to more traditional Tibetan culture then you would in occupied Tibet proper.
posted by edgeways at 9:24 AM on February 26, 2007

A friend of mine did her post-college year in Tibet, specifically studying at Tibet University. Happy to put you in touch with her if you'd like. My email is superfem at gmail.
posted by superfem at 9:53 AM on February 26, 2007

Going to Tibet is not something I would worry about.

Going to Tibet for the express purpose of researching Sino-Globalization? Wouldn't touch it with a hundred foot pole.
posted by tkolar at 10:07 AM on February 26, 2007

The topic is definitely sensitive, but here in Beijing at least, there are people who will talk about it in private conversation. The writer Wang Lixiong has written and published (albeit overseas and online) on the topic of China's impact on Tibet's culture and habitat, and if you read Chinese, he's well worth a look. We interviewed his wife (who is Tibetan, and also a writer) a while back, and took care to do all our coordinating over Skype and other relatively hard-to-monitor channels.

Alidarbac is right: you yourself wouldn't be in much danger, other than perhaps facing the possibility of some unfriendly questioning and a fairly pointed shove in the direction of the nearest international airport, but any Tibetans you talked to would seriously be in dutch.
posted by bokane at 10:56 AM on February 26, 2007

Does your college or university have an institutional research review board for human subjects research? (They should, if they don't already.) If so, make an appointment to talk about your potential research with them. It is their job to make sure no proposed research by faculty or students puts subjects at risk. If it is a small college with no review board, make appointments to talk both with the professor who would be supervising the research, and with the person in the administration who would need to approve of such a trip (director of foreign study? dean of student life? depends on your school's administrative structure), and lay out your proposal to them.

My take on it (as someone who has never been near Tibet) is that if there is any possibility that people will be in danger from your research, and unless the research is tremendously compelling and is guaranteed to save many lives, the ethical course of action is to change your research plans. Go to Tibet, but research something more innocuous, or do the same research elsewhere. You are unlikely to be in danger yourself (if you are really irritating, you might get arrested and deported, but I'd be surprised if the Chinese government wanted to provoke an incident over a student trip), and as a foreigner you will have lots of support and legal guarantees. Your research subjects have none of this, and it is your responsibility to not put them at greater risk than they are already in.
posted by Forktine at 11:35 AM on February 26, 2007

I think Forktine has it right. Fundamentally, the purpose of this trip would be to aid your personal academic development. That's a worthy goal, but it's not worth risking anyone's safety over. If there's any chance that you would put your subjects at risk, you need to rethink your project.

I think that your application will look stronger and be more credible if it appears that you've thought seriously about the challenges and ethical dilemmas involved in your research.
posted by craichead at 2:10 PM on February 26, 2007

Generally, the answer is it's perfectly safe to go anywhere in the developing world except for conflict zones. However, you'll never get the right papers and visas for this from the government, and if you lie about it you could potentially get in a lot of trouble. I like the idea of the exiled Tibetans in India.
posted by borkingchikapa at 3:23 AM on February 27, 2007

But wouldn't Tibetans in India be shielded from Sinicization?

A couple other options would be to do a report that is non-critical of the Sinicization and approaches the subject from a different angle (economic development, music, transportation), or do it in another location in China. Even Beijing would work, I think.
posted by msittig at 4:40 PM on February 28, 2007

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