Editor's note: "Manufacturing Shangri-La" is a three-part series on a Tibetan Hamlet turned tourist trap. Read Part 1: China attempts to manufacture “Shangri-La”; Part 2: Profit quest imperils one of world’s most stunning landscapes
SHANGRI-LA, China – Much like the mythical Shangri-La, the real-life Shangri-La is a haven of ethnic diversity.
As James Hilton described it in his 1933 novel "Lost Horizon," the fictional mountain utopia plays host to a mixture of Tibetans, Chinese and Europeans.
“As for our racial origins, there are representatives of a great many nations among us,” one character says, “though it is perhaps natural that Tibetans and Chinese make up the majority.”
Among the mosaic of ethnicities in this small corner of the Tibetan plateau, peaceful coexistence is a long-standing custom. Around "Old Town," Tibetans, the largest group, construct buildings while women from the Lisu and Bai minorities sell crafts on open-air tables in the plaza. Han Chinese, the third-largest group, operate many of the hostels and tourist shops.
"We feel this place really is Shangri-La, because it is special " says Yang Qiong, a member of the Naxi minority who grew up around Zhongdian. "Local people get along."
The relative harmony among groups in Shangri-La is increasingly rare in China. Feeling left behind and oppressed by the government, China's minorities often resent the Han Chinese, who make up 92 percent of the population.
Across the country, incidents of conflict are legion. In 2008, anti-Han riots in Tibet left as many as 80 dead. In 2009, Uighurs riots in Urumqi, the capital city in Xinjiang, killed nearly 200, most of them Han Chinese. Since 2011, 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.
“Ethnic relations in China are at an all-time low,” writes Anne-Marie Brady, a professor studying China’s ethnic policies.
Few Americans realize the extent — and the importance — of China’s diversity. The government recognizes 55 individual groups in addition to the Han majority. While only 8 percent of China’s population belong to minorities, that adds up to more than 110 million people — three times California’s population. The strongest minorities, Tibetans and Uighurs, have often been the object of brutality.
“There are very clear signs that China is running out of time to start allowing more autonomy and less interference for its main minorities,” writes Odd Arne Westad, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, in his new book Restless Empire. “The younger generation of Tibetans and Uighurs will want increased recognition of their own identity within China."
Minorities occupy nearly half of China’s territory, in some of its most resource-rich areas. Yunnan, where Shangri-La is located, has the greatest ethnic diversity of any province. Twenty-five ethnic minorities comprise a third of the population. It is also China’s second-poorest province.
In terms of income and education, minorities generally lag far behind the Han, and they remain largely shut out from real political power. The Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s most powerful institution, has never had a minority member.
Across China, minorities not seen as a threat (Tibetans, Uighurs) are generally portrayed as colorful people who sing and dance and love to entertain visitors.
This stereotype is visible at Yunnan's ethnic tourism sights. Strolling around Lijiang, a tourist-mobbed town south of Shangri-La, can be shocking for Americans accustomed to political correctness. Women in "native" costumes — many of them Han — wave clappers outside a raucous strip of bars, where patrons watch dancers in neon headdresses perform Tibetan, Lisu, and Yi moves to thumping music.
“The different cultures have different standards of what's a good tourist time,” says Ed Grumbine, an American professor who studies botany in Yunnan. “In the US, if you had a bunch of Hispanic people dressing up and doing a Navajo dance and claiming it was legitimate, it would be an outrage. In China, it’s not an outrage, it’s business as usual.”
Indeed, commercializing the culture is the whole point. And rather than being a source of tension, the added income is a key ingredient in Shangri-La’s peaceful coexistence.
One local government official of ethnic Pumi descent tells me, “I’m not worried about commodification and commercializing. It’s unstoppable. If people come and rent your house, that’s business."
When asked if he thinks there are too many tourists, a He Guo Gao, a poor Naxi farmer outside Lijiang, says “The more the better.” He earns money as an unlicensed taxi driver for tourists going to and from the train station.
Yet residents also regret the fading heritage. The Pumi official says, “I am worried about changing culture. All the souvenirs here are just like everywhere else in China.”
Jason Lees, a longtime resident of Shangri-La who left Lijiang when it became too touristy, lamented that Shangri-La seemed to be headed the same direction. He noted that many Tibetans now make money letting tour groups come into their homes and watch them do staged ceremonies. “They sing, they dance, they drink, which is totally against their culture.”
Of greater concern than authenticity is the distribution of benefits from tourism. Yang Qiong, who works at a non-profit dedicated to teaching Lisu and Yi how to make and sell their own crafts, said that "outsiders own 85 percent of the businesses" in town.
"Local people want to have businesses, too," she said, "but they do not have the experience."
In several respects, government policies toward minorities are actually favorable. They are exempt from the one-child policy. The government directs economic subsidies to minority regions, and grants extra points on the high-stakes university entrance exam, the gaokao, creating some resentment among the Han majority.
Yet for now, ethnic relations in Shangri-La seem unusually calm — a remarkable fact in light of the growing hostility between Tibetans and Chinese.
Matteo Pistono, a Tibet human rights monitor and author of In the Shadow of the Buddha, notes that Shangri-La has not experienced many of the flare-ups that have occurred in other Tibetan regions.
“There have not been the kind of political demonstrations we saw in 2008 all around the [Tibetan] plateau, nor have there been any self immolations,” he says. “The economy has always been a bit better there for Tibetans in the last decade.”
Nonetheless, he says, relations between Tibetans and Hans are — and will seemingly remain — tense.
“The tension has something to do with the general feeling of not being in control, like all Tibetans feel, for their own land, and a more than half a century of yearning for the Dalai Lama to return to his home in Tibet."
Read part one in this series: China attempts to manufacture “Shangri-La”
Read part two in this series: Profit quest imperils one of world’s most stunning landscapes