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Restrictions on the import of religious items from Nepal

July 6, 2009

On 01 July 2009, restrictions on the import of religious handicrafts, mainly
statues, from Nepal into Tibet became effective. Non-commercial imports for
religious purposes will now only be possible for officially accredited
religious institutions, and their imports will have to be authorised, and
the transactions supervised, by the appropriate Religious Affairs Bureaus.
Although no official reasons have been given for the new policy, it appears
that the move by the Chinese authorities is aimed at placing trans-border
religious links, and possibly the use of religious funds, under closer
scrutiny, while protecting the local markets from Nepali imports.

Over the centuries, Nepal has been the source of some of the most highly
valued religious icons in Tibet, in particular statues and other metal
goods. What was a traditionally flourishing industry was disrupted in the
1960s and 1970s, forcing many Nepalese craftsmen to give up their businesses
or convert them into making cheap articles for the tourist market. There was
a revival in the 1980s but it was short lived, largely because Tibetan's
impoverishment meant that volume of trade was almost non-existent. It is
only in the last ten years, and particularly in the last seven years, that
the trade in high-quality, large statues has once again boomed, fuelled by
demand from religious institutions, and individuals, in Tibet. The Kathmandu
Valley, and in particular the city of Patan (Lalitpur), is today, as it was
in the past, the centre of production of such items, and the artisans behind
it mostly belong to the Newar ethnic group. Although most orders come from
Tibetan regions, there is also a growing demand for Nepali-made Tibetan
Buddhist paraphernalia in the Chinese mainland. While this reflects an
increasing interest in Tibetan Buddhism amongst Chinese people (Han),
Tibetan exotic 'curios' in general are currently very fashionable. Official
statistics about the trade are unreliable, but insiders estimate that its
volume is very substantial, certainly in terms of Nepalese standards.

The new restrictions were announced at very short notice. The Nepali
authorities were informed only on 23 June 2009 through their consulate in
Lhasa. Announcements in the Chinese language were circulated on the PRC side
of the border, leaving the Nepalis unclear as to what the exact conditions
of the restrictions would be. As the news spread, traders and artisans
worked frantically in order to deliver existing orders before the deadline.

Part of the rationale behind the move seems to be an effort by the Chinese
authorities to regulate border trade. Many orders placed by Tibetan buyers
remain beyond the control of the authorities as they are placed informally
and the items are then brought into Tibet via various delivery points where
the presence of the security forces is sparse. In this way, the transactions
avoid the scrutiny of the PRC bureaucracy and with that formal and less
formal fees linked to trans-border trade.

The Chinese authorities are also known to be suspicious of the close links
between religious institutions within Tibetan regions and in Nepal (orders
are often placed through monasteries or clerics in Nepal), as well as with
traders and manufacturers there. The new regulations effectively limit the
scope of such contacts, as they will be placed under the scrutiny of the
state organs that regulate religious life in the name of state and Party.
These organs may also use the new rules to get a better hold on the handling
of religious funds as, on many occasions in the past, they have been
critical of the use of resources, particularly donations, for the purchase
of costly objects like large statues, calling them an obstacle to

There is also an underlying assumption that the authorities intend to limit
the import of religious items because they are anxious to develop a domestic
industry to cater for the demand from monasteries etc, as well the related
tourist market. Locally produced religious items at present are of lesser
quality and lack the authenticity of Nepali-made goods and so far they are
not as popular with buyers. A similar protectionist development was recently
observed in the tourism trade. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics,
tourism-related personnel, like porters, cooks, guides and others, of Nepali
nationality but belonging to ethnic groups related to Tibetans and
consequently hardly discernable, through their names and physical features,
from Tibetans were largely denied business visas for Tibet. After the
Olympics, they have still found it difficult to work in Tibet, apparently
because Chinese nationals, some Tibetans, but largely other nationalities,
are replacing them.

Nepali traders and artisans admit to being deeply concerned about the impact
the new regulations will have on the future of their businesses, but they
are also cautious about upsetting China. They are not openly critical and
have so far limited their actions to urging Nepalese officials to convey
their concerns through diplomatic channels. Some hope that, while the direct
export of religious items into Tibet and China seems likely to become more
difficult in the near future, buyers might be enticed to the Kathmandu
Valley to purchase religious items there, thus assuring the continuation of
the industry. Already, at present, much of the metal work sold to tourists
in Tibet is brought from Nepal by Chinese Muslims (Hui). With many details
of the new restrictions still vague, only the future will tell how the trade
will develop.
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