The Lumbini project: a Chinese-developed scenic spot in Nepal?

July 19, 2011

Fellow (but alas, recently dormant) MqVU blogger Zhang Juan forwarded to me a post by Al-Jazeera’s China correspondent Melissa Chan. Chan writes that

China is leading a project worth $3bn to transform the small town into the premier place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world.  Little Lumbini will have an airport, highway, hotels, convention centre, temples and a Buddhist university. That’s in addition to the installation of water, electricity and communication lines it currently lacks. (…)

(T)he project is worth almost 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. (…) The organization behind the project is called the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), a quasi-governmental non-governmental organisation. Its executive vice president, Xiao Wunan (…) holds a position at the National Development and Reform Commission (…) On Friday, APECF held a signing ceremony for the project with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). (…)

With the backing of the UN, Xiao has said he hopes Lumbini will bring together all three schools of the faith: the Mahayana as practised in China, Japan, and South Korea; the Hinayana as practiced in Southeast Asia; and Tibetan Buddhism. (…)

Lumbini will become a special development zone, similar to some of China’s successful zones such as Shenzhen, with preferential treatment, tax breaks and investment incentives.

Hu Yuandong of UNIDO, which will advise on the creation of the development zone, says the focus of the project is job creation, poverty alleviation and environmental protection.

Xiao has made clear that the $3bn investment is not coming from the Chinese government, but rather from various funds “around the world” – even from the Middle East.

Much of Chan’s post focuses on whether this project should be seen as a state-backed Chinese attempt to impose its interpretation on world Buddhism, aimed particularly to marginalize the Dalai Lama, who has not been allowed to visit Lumbini since the 1980s. (Nepal has been applying increasing pressure on Tibetan refugees, cracking down on protests several times since 2008.)

It is likely that the masterminds of the scheme are appealing to this line of thought, partly to gain support from the Chinese government. But I take this with a grain of salt: all Chinese special-zone projects, from the now-shuttered casino town at Boten in northern Laos to the East Africa Economic Development Zone and  the mega-investment in the Swedish town of Kalmar (which never materialised and was the subject of Ronja Yu’s documentary The Chinese are Coming to Town), include extravagant plans of modernization, none of which have yet materialized. Although UNIDO’s support for the zone is notable, it was also present in the case of Laos. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the whole thing turned out to be a bubble.

Nonetheless, the news is interesting in that it demonstrates the continuing appeal and versatility of the special zone model in China’s neighbourhood, as well as the rapidly expanding scale of Chinese tourism. As the growth of Golden Boten City, a special zone in northern Laos so far centred on gambling, ground to a halt this spring under Chinese government pressure and as its operator is likely to sell its holdings, questions have arisen about the future of the zone itself. Another gambling-centred zone in Laos, Golden Triangle, wants to reorient itself towards tourism. The Lumbini plan suggests that these plans may not be entirely unrealistic.

The Lumbini project is the first attempt to recreate China’s “scenic spot” model of tourism development abroad, targeting both Chinese and non-Chinese tourists and highlighting the entanglements of religion and tourism that characterise such developments in China. (One is reminded in particular of a recent megadevelopment in Shandong Province to create a kind of Confucius theme park centred on the sage’s birthpace.) While, to repeat, I do not think that the Chinese state is directly involved in this project as a way of squeezing the Dalai Lama, it does seem to constitute the propagation of a state-engineered sinocentric view of Buddhism beyond China’s borders, even if a market-driven one.