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Quiet resistance at a Tibetan festival

August 2007

Asked whether he was wearing any animal fur, the man exclaimed, "Absolutely not!" What ensued was a very careful conversation in which the man insisted that wearing fur was against his religion and then acknowledged receiving "teaching" on the practice two years ago.

GYEGU, China: With the polish of veteran TV emcees, the slick, Chinese-speaking announcers used every trick in the book to try to get a largely Tibetan crowd of a few hundred people involved in the singing and dancing on stage.

"Let's hear a round of applause for your very own Khampa festival," shouted the man, drawing little more than murmurs from the audience in this city in western China, just north of the Tibetan border. "One more time, this is your own real and genuine festival," the man continued gamely, only to be greeted once again by near silence.

It is possible that in this region of China, where the Tibetans cling to their own language, the announcer's shtick failed for reasons of sheer incomprehension. It could not have helped, though, that the crowd had been corralled by a large deployment of police and soldiers who stood by, as if on guard against serious trouble, throughout the morning's performances.

Then, after a moment of uneasy quiet, the female emcee offered her own interpretation, heard over a live microphone. "They're ignoring us," she said.

This is the season of Tibetan festivals, where people throughout this region gather to celebrate old traditions during the long, hot days of summer, before the early onset of autumn and a harsh, prolonged winter.

The Khampa festival in Qinghai Province is one of the largest on the calendar and draws Tibetans from all over western China.

This year, for the first time, local officials tried to use the event to promote tourism and development in one of the poorest areas of China. As the hushed response to the announcers suggested, however, the event had also acquired a political subtext: the continuing struggle between China and its Tibetan minority over cultural identity and religious freedom.

In recent weeks, China has announced new regulations governing the reincarnation of Tibetan clergy and has acted swiftly against Tibetans at other summer festivals who have hoisted banners with the likeness of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and in one case, urged people to shout if they wished for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return from exile.

Most of this province, and parts of several others, including Sichuan and Yunnan, were long part of Tibet itself before China's People's Liberation Army marched into the area in 1950 to enforce Beijing's claim.

With so many security forces on hand in this modest town, nestled in a valley surrounded by high mountains, there was little chance of an outright demonstration in favor of the Dalai Lama. The test of wills played itself out instead around a theme unlikely to have been noticed by many of the tourists from China's Han majority: whether or not to wear animal furs.

The ceremonial wearing of animal fur has been raised to the status of a political question in western China, since the Dalai Lama issued a statement two years ago urging Tibetans to reject the longtime practice as inconsistent with Buddhism. Reportedly, the Dalai Lama was responding to complaints from Indian conservationists that Tibetans' fondness for skins from tigers and other endangered species was hastening their disappearance.

As word of the Dalai Lama's instructions spread across western China, some Tibetan communities responded by publicly burning their furs, while others have simply dropped the use of fur in ceremonies. This perceived act of obedience to a man whom the Chinese government has long vilified as a "splittist," meaning secessionist, appears to have angered the authorities.

Zhou Hongyuan, deputy governor of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, denied that participants had been ordered to wear animal skins and furs, but supported the practice, saying: "We are an ethnic region, and we want to create a festive atmosphere and promote our uniqueness. It has been our tradition for thousands of years to wear fur."

Members of Tibetan performance troupes who came here from towns in Qinghai, however, said they had been urged by local officials to continue wearing their traditional outfits.

Judging from the appearance of one group after another, however, the call went almost completely unheeded. Indeed, during several days of festivities, a visitor was hard pressed to find any conspicuous displays of fur.

On the eve of their troupe's performance, a couple of Tibetan dancers from Nangqian County in Qinghai practiced their twirling moves in their full regalia, including long strands of blue and orange beads that shone in the strong afternoon sun as they spun.

Asked whether he was wearing any animal fur, the man exclaimed, "Absolutely not!" What ensued was a very careful conversation in which the man insisted that wearing fur was against his religion and then acknowledged receiving "teaching" on the practice two years ago.

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