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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

In Shangri-La, culture a hot commodity

June 23, 2008

By Jill Drew
The Washington Post
June 22, 2008

GEZA, China - Her elder sister is the first to rise, bringing in wood
to light the cooking fire and setting water to boil for yak butter
tea. Her mother is next, grabbing clumps of freshly picked dandelion
greens from a metal tub to mix with barley powder and water to feed the pigs.

Jian Hongmei pulls her blanket tight, trying for a few more minutes
of sleep before acknowledging the new day, which opens as so many
others have in her 19 years in this Tibetan mountain village.

But today is different. For the past month, Jian has been working in
a job at a hotel about two hours away by bus. She's making more money
than the four adult farmers in her family put together. Today is her
first visit back.

"I've lived here long enough," Jian says later, as she walks beside a
brilliant-green barley field, stopping a few times to pick yellow
blossoms from wild medicinal plants that she used to spend hours
gathering to sell at market. "I want to see other places and do other
things. Here, nothing changes."

Tibetans, traditionally nomadic herders and farmers, are increasingly
being lured into a commercial world, a place where Chinese and
English language skills are prerequisites for success and ethnic
identity is something to be marketed to tourists. Many young Tibetans
like Jian jump at the chance to escape harsh farm work on mountain
plateaus, but the opportunity means leaving behind a way of life that
has defined one of the most romanticized cultures in the world.

Tibetan identity is a white-hot global issue after protests in March,
the most extensive uprising against Chinese rule of the Himalayan
region in nearly 20 years. Tibetans marched for religious freedom,
economic opportunity, and cultural autonomy before Chinese police
crushed the demonstrations and angry Tibetans started a deadly riot.
Police arrested hundreds, closing off the monasteries at the heart of
the protests from the public and banning foreign journalists from
most Tibetan areas.

The international condemnation that accompanied China's crackdown
faded in the aftermath of the earthquake in neighboring Sichuan
Province last month that killed more than 60,000 people. But
attention is returning to Tibet. The Olympic torch, making its way to
Beijing for the Aug. 8 start of the Summer Games, was run through the
Tibetan capital city of Lhasa yesterday.

There were no protests near Geza, a village of 42 Tibetan families in
the northwestern corner of Yunnan Province. Locals say relations
between the Tibetans and the ethnic Han Chinese are more subtle than
in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Rather than suppressing Tibetan culture, locals say, officials work
to profit from it. The region's economy is centered in the town where
Jian now works, which was once known as Zhongdian but has been
renamed Shangri-La, after the lost utopia of the 1933 James Hilton
novel "Lost Horizon," to appeal to the tourist trade.

The economic successes in Shangri-La have served to keep political
and religious tensions low, unlike in Lhasa, where local Tibetans
have not been fully integrated into the economy.
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