Monday, May 21, 2012

Tim Johnson's "Tragedy in Crimson": Book Review

This follows the stadiums full of cheers for the Dalai Lama's righteous but perhaps quixotic cause by many Western supporters with an insistent voice of reason. As an experienced China-based journalist, sympathetic to the underdog but determined to tell the truth, Tim Johnson's well placed to hear the Mandarin side of the debate and the PRC's position as it crushes dissent in Tibet and abroad. That is, post-2008, few articles and fewer books have emerged to date chronicling the shift towards heavier suppression and heightened surveillance as Chinese bullying escalates and as the rest of the world capitulates to the economic superpower's demands for cooperation with the anti-Tibetan crackdowns.

What happens is that China lobbies in American corridors of power for a narrow view: any pro-Tibet stance legislators may adapt equates for a return to barbaric theocracy and despotic feudalism. This contradicts, of course, the Dalai Lama's reiterated position for a truly autonomous Tibetan entity, if not the desperation of a marginalized people who, as the internal exile poet Woeser laments here, find it now impossible to change their own destiny, as marginalization accelerates and the environment, ecologically and culturally, faces irreparable damage. He shows how discrimination against Tibetans continues in universities and jobs, and how as in Lhasa Han and Hui Muslim immigration weakens the native culture and their means of making a livelihood in an increasingly desacralized tourist trap. Full of brothels, many owned by government, party, or military, this symbolizes Tibet's subservience.

Johnson visits Tibet, on a tourist visa; he tells how as a blacklisted journalist, media access is denied those considered pro-Dalai Lama--a sign of the PRC's success in propaganda bent on repairing its image. Activists have their human and cyber networks hacked; academics toe the Chinese line or face funding cuts and loss of student tuition from a lucrative market of immigrants; He opens his account with a warning: "Today it is the Tibetans. Tomorrow, those harmonizing about the glorious blue skies of China could be you or me." (26) As China rises in power, the fate of the Uighurs (suspected post-9/11 as subversive, their ancient cities bulldozed into featureless flats) or Mongols (not too long ago, outnumbering the Han Chinese 5:1, they now find their language and culture fading under relentless resettlement of the Mongol homeland by the Han majority) now is that of Tibet.

As one activist laments, among those contemplating fighting back, "We are going to be wiped out in another thirty years. It is now or never, do or die." (113 qtd.) Johnson examines those who differ with the patient, non-violent, nearly invisible pace of resistance commended by the "god-king," and he explains how the eminence of the Dalai Lama overshadows that leader's encouragement that the exile government (itself well-described in its comparative modesty in half-trendy, half-slurried Dharmasala) seek democratic consensus to move alternatives forward. He also reveals how ghosted systems installed by the PRC obtained many internal documentations and communications among the pro-Tibet networks worldwide, and how the Chinese use their clout to get their way to keep "trade."

Johnson, capable of relaying the views also of the Chinese as leaders and followers, does take pains to show their perspective {contrary to what some reviewers and commentators assert at Amazon}. As a skilled reporter, his tone may not captivate as much as those who rhetorically root for the Dalai Lama, but he in a quieter fashion builds a balanced presentation, afforded by his position within China for so many years, and his own contacts there and overseas. He shows how the Chinese cleverly commented on how Obama claimed in 2009 to have learned from Lincoln's Civil War role. Surely, the Chinese lectured America's first black president, such a man must admit that the racist Confederacy could be compared to the "splittists" blamed for, as with other minority populations in today's PRC, agitating against the fatherland's benevolent wish for unity. However, it is undeniable that China funds many who speak on behalf of its own hardline policies.

Sowing discord, as with the "Shugden affair," and the diplomatic and well-financed business efforts to sway leaders abroad away from pro-Tibetan statements let alone action demonstrates how the Chinese operate. Even among Buddhists drawn in China to study in Tibet, they obey largely the dictates of their government and party rather than their spiritual mentors, and Johnson's visit to a vast complex near Serthar in remote Tibet shows this conflict, or lack of such, in intriguing detail.

This book sits on a small shelf of recent coverage; I also reviewed Jonathan Green's "Murder in the High Himalaya" (on the murder of a fleeing refugee near Nangpa Pass mentioned in passing by Johnson if unnamed by him on p. 104), Matteo Pistono's clandestine coverage "In the Shadow of the Buddha,", and Stephan Talty's conclusion,  "Escape from the Land of the Snows." Johnson's dispassionate tone, more akin to journalism than advocacy, may be less gripping than Green's conflicted mountain climbers and desperate devotees, or Pistono's dramatic eyewitness testimony, but as with Talty, Johnson provides valuable interpretations of why Tibet matters to at least a few of us.

Other chapters feature the impact of the rail line to Lhasa, the forced relocation of Tibet's herders into housing tracts, the unrest in border areas beyond the Chinese T.A.R. boundaries, the Karmapa and the Black Crown intrigue, similar complexity around the Southern California prep-school educated, pampered daughter marketed as "The Princess of Tibet," and the Dalai Lama's own articulation of his own challenging array of roles he has to play. What happens after his demise, of course, overshadows the predicament of Tibet's future. The good will conveyed by the present Dalai Lama may not survive his death, and Tibet may be relegated to the comparative neglect of Uighurs and Mongols in the attentions of the rest of the world, which already pays its situation little heed outside a few circles.

As Johnson titles a telling chapter, "Hollywood vs. Wal-Mart," it appears that we Westerners "might adore the Dalai Lama, but many love their high-paying jobs and their cheap Chinese-made products more." (289) For all the proclamations passed in the world's legislators and fundraising dinners acclaiming the Dalai Lama, China blocked in 2009 his attempt for a South African visa to attend a gathering of Nobel Peace laureates.

In closing, this sobering book merits attention; I came across it only by chance. If its comparatively modest profile is indicative of the reception of his necessary call for more action and less talk about Tibet's crisis, perhaps this promotion of its message will be one small step forward. It's well documented and carefully end-noted. A telling indicator of the gravity of its contents is that many names must remain anonymous, given the mortal threats many of his informants live under. (Amazon US 5-11-12)

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