July 17, 2011


[Reflecting the diplomatic delicacy of the visit, the 44-minute meeting with the Dalai Lama — Mr. Obama’s second as president — was closed to the news media. China considers Tibet its territory and the Dalai Lama a separatist, although he favors self-rule rather than independence.]


WASHINGTON President Obama met privately with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, at the White House on Saturday, despite a warning from Beijing that the meeting would risk damaging relations between China and the United States.
Reflecting the diplomatic delicacy of the visit, the 44-minute meeting with the Dalai Lama — Mr. Obama’s second as president — was closed to the news media. China considers Tibet its territory and the Dalai Lama a separatist, although he favors self-rule rather than independence.
The Dalai Lama underscored that point in his conversation with Mr. Obama, according to a White House summary of the meeting. The White House statement also reflected the delicate balance Mr. Obama sought to strike, saying he expressed “strong support” for direct talks and a resolution between China and Tibet that protects both Tibetans’ rights and China’s claim to the territory. But Mr. Obama also “stressed the importance he attaches to building a U.S.-China cooperative partnership.”
“The president reiterated his strong support for the preservation of the unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions of Tibet and the Tibetan people throughout the world,” the statement said. “He underscored the importance of the protection of human rights of Tibetans in China.”
The meeting came at a particularly delicate time as China, the largest creditor to the United States, has expressed concern about the risk of a default on American bonds if Mr. Obama and Republicans cannot break their impasse over raising the nation’s legal debt limit.
Beijing on Saturday reiterated its call for Mr. Obama to cancel the meeting, according to China’s official news agency, Xinhua. “The issue regarding Tibet concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we firmly oppose any foreign official to meet with the Dalai Lama in any form,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
Mr. Obama declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in his first year as president, in October 2009, drawing international criticism as seeming to put economic interests with China ahead of human rights. The administration said the two would meet after Mr. Obama’s first trip a month later to China, where the United States was eager for Chinese cooperation in preventing nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. Their introduction came the following February.
The Dalai Lama, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has lived in exile in India since 1959, when China repressed a Tibetan uprising. He was in Washington for a Buddhist celebration.
[Moreover, many groups feel marginalized by Beijing’s policies that regulate minorities. Economic incentives that have lured millions of Han Chinese to the country’s western, southern and northern fringes have created socioeconomic rifts along ethnic lines.]
By Jonathan Kaiman And 
BEIJING — They have toured Europe, played alongside marquee names like the band Coldplay and earned plaudits in the international press. But here in China, the growing popularity of the Mongolian rock band Hanggai has not exactly inspired adulation from the authorities.
During a recent music festival the band organized in the suburbs of Beijing, Hanggai stacked the roster with musicians who, like the band’s members, are known for combining traditional ethnic music with contemporary genres. There were performances by Mamer, an experimental musician from the Kazakh border region of China who plays a long-necked lute, and Zhang Quan, a peripatetic folk singer from the arid northwestern plains.
The event, undiminished by the erratic sound quality and overpriced food, attracted a swarm of state security officers who monitored the crowd with suspicion, impatience and a hint of curiosity.
A growing roster of alternative performance sites and music festivals has allowed Chinese ethnic minority musicians like the members of Hanggai to enjoy an unusual degree of financial security and cultural prominence.
But in China, where the central government maintains a firm grip on popular media and cultural events, minority musicians walk a fine line: play it safe and they may lose their audience; go too far and they may lose their stage.
About 8 percent of China’s population, or more than 100 million people, belong to 55 state-designated ethnic minority groups. Centuries of isolation and autonomy have made many of them linguistically and culturally distinct from the majority Han.
But over the past 30 years, a variety of social, economic and political forces have pushed them toward assimilation into mainstream Chinese culture. The lure of well-paid work in the cities draws young people away from traditional village life. Television and popular music have eclipsed traditional forms of entertainment.
Moreover, many groups feel marginalized by Beijing’s policies that regulate minorities. Economic incentives that have lured millions of Han Chinese to the country’s western, southern and northern fringes have created socioeconomic rifts along ethnic lines.
“There’s a widespread belief among minorities that Han have an unfair advantage in terms of getting better employment and opportunities in minority areas,” said Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese minorities at Pomona College in California. Such resentments, he added, were an underlying factor in recent uprisings in Tibet and the western region of Xinjiang, where rioting by ethnic Uighurs claimed hundreds of lives, most of them Han Chinese.
In its official media, the Communist Party seeks to paint a very different picture.
At the forefront of state-sponsored minority representation are the “song and dance troupes” that appear regularly on television. These shows portray minorities as exotic and unthreatening — with bright clothes and wide smiles and who are fanatical about singing and dancing. Many disparate minority groups often perform on stage together to symbolize ethnic harmony. Songs are often performed in Mandarin.
The lyrics are frequently apolitical paeans to the rugged allure of China’s borderlands. In 2009, the Mongolian singer Wulan Tuoya had a major hit with the crisp, karaoke-friendly “I Want to Go to Tibet.” The song’s music video looks like a public relations campaign for Tibetan tourism, juxtaposing government-financed group dances with video clips of the Beijing-Lhasa express train.
The status quo poses a challenge to those who wish to perform traditional songs as they are, with lyrics often describing less salubrious aspects of minority life.
“About 80 percent of my songs are about hardship,” said Aojie a Ge, a Beijing-based musician from the Yi minority of southwest China. “But can I perform these songs? Of course not. I still need to survive.”
Mr. Aojie rose to national fame in the late 1990s with the pop trio Mountain Eagle. Although he grew up in the Liangshan Prefecture of Sichuan Province, one of the country’s poorest regions, he has largely assimilated to city life. He wears shoulder-length dreadlocks and designer jeans. His celebrity has earned him a prestigious job directing programs for a performance group affiliated with the All China Federation of Trade Unions, a government institution.
Many such programs are political in nature: Mr. Aojie recently returned from a week in Yunnan Province, where he helped local entrepreneurs develop a program promoting patriotic songs.
While Mr. Aojie enjoys the stability and prestige associated with his position, he is aware of the artistic limits imposed by the authorities. The government, for example, ultimately decides where he can perform, as well as the language of his songs.
“Of course, I have objections,” Mr. Aojie said. “In other countries, you can raise them. Here, you can’t.”
But some minority musicians have succeeded in carving out an alternate path.
Take, for example, Shanren, or “mountain people,” another band that has become known for its eclectic style — songs move fluidly from electronica to reggae to metal — and arrangements inspired by traditional music from the country’s ethnically diverse southwest, a mélange of loose falsetto harmonies and twangy pentatonic lutes.
Growing up in a poor and mountainous village in southwest Guizhou Province, said the band’s lead multi-instrumentalist, Xiao Budian, a music career was beyond imagination. The son of a cow herder and member of the tiny Buyi minority, Mr. Xiao left home on his 19th birthday, spending his high school tuition fees on a one-way train ticket to Beijing. “I wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain,” he said.
Mr. Xiao initially lived with his older brother, a rock musician who had amassed a collection of foreign music and movies during his years in the capital. One day, Mr. Xiao heard Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a documentary about World War II. “It was so simple, just a voice, a guitar and a harmonica,” he said. “But its power was tremendous. It was like an atom bomb.”
From their vantage point outside government channels, Shanren can breach subjects off limits to musicians like Mr. Aojie.
For example, “30 Years” is a Shanren song based on a Yi folk tune. Qu Zihan, the band’s frontman, changed the lyrics to reflect the difficulty of finding good work and love in the big city.
“Even though we have rebellious things in our music, they’re really not so obvious,” Mr. Qu said. “We just want to approach things from a different angle, to make people think.”
Last month, a few hundred foreigners and young Chinese packed a popular bar to see Hanggai play a final set in Beijing before embarking on a national tour. Projectors washed the stage with glimpses of lush grass hills, blue skies and galloping horse — a subtle reminder of what many Mongolians say is being destroyed by a coal boom orchestrated by Han mining companies.
After each song, fans from the band members’ hometowns in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region climbed on stage to present multicolored silk scarves to the band, a traditional gesture of respect. When Huricha, one of the band’s vocalists, growled, “We will bring you to the grasslands,” the audience burst into applause.
But such flourishes of ethnic pride are counterbalanced by moments of uncertainty. At a Hanggai show in Shanghai the following week, one night after Shanren played on the same stage to a sold-out crowd, the police stopped the show after the opening act, saying there had been complaints about the noise.
The band was disappointed but forbearing. “They don’t need to control everything the way they do,” Ilchi, the band’s leader, said later. “Rock concerts are very safe. It’s only music after all.”