Pay no attention to the subtitle of this book, ‘How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China’. The author says relatively little about His Holiness, possibly because so much has already been written. As for losing the battle with China, if one thing emerges it is that the Tibet question is far from settled. With China in flux, the situation is more fluid than ever.
Johnson focuses on the next generation of Tibetans – both the leaders and the people. For the first two thirds of the book he travels in circles, visiting Nepal, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Sichuan, and Dharamshala, meeting activists, monks, nomads, refugees and everyday folk. There is an unauthorised visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), taking the train to Lhasa and a jeep out to Everest Base Camp, and a lot of material gathered from Beijing, where Johnson was a correspondent for America’s McClatchy Newspaper group for six years. The last hundred pages, where he accompanies His Holiness on tour and recounts some old controversies, are insightful but less interesting. The picture that emerges is of a fast changing scene, where China’s newfound economic and military might are far from a guarantee of control.
In Dharamshala Johnson meets a diverse range of figures, from His Holiness the Karmapa to Tenzin Tsundue and Lobsang Wangyal. In Beijing he speaks to blogger Tsering Woeser and in Xining to singer and writer Jamyang Kyi, figures who walk a fine line between activism and arrest. Interviews with Tibetans in Qinghai back up the impression that Chinese rule is very far from being accepted as permanent. If anything, transmigration and investment have strengthened anti-Chinese sentiment as economic equality between the settlers and the original inhabitants grows. As Johnson delves deeper, the power of the Tibetan identity seems increasingly resistant to Beijing’s attempts to enforce conformity.
One example is religion, which is occupying the space abandoned by the Communist Party as it ditches ideology in favour of a monolithic consumerism. The Taiwanese and mainland Han who are taking to Buddhism in increasing numbers bring status and, not unimportantly, money to a faith whose leading practitioners are, of course, Tibetan. A case in point is Serthar, an unauthorised institute deep in the mountains of Sichuan whose lama, Jigme Phuntsok, has been drawing devotees, particularly from Taiwan, for two decades. It’s possible to overstate the challenge this presents to the Party – Johnson’s comparison of the Dalai Lama to Pope John Paul II is a little creaky, and Falun Gong is evidence that religious persecution applies as much to the Han as to anyone else. But the vacillating policy on Serthar is evidence the Communist Party has little idea how to manage the rising power of religion.
The book also looks at the wider picture. Johnson travels to Mongolia, which has largely been sinicised, but also to Xinjiang, which erupted into violence in 2009 after years of forced relocations of local populations, mass Han immigration and an overbearing security presence. He interviews Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, whose life story is instructive. A successful businesswoman, she was co-opted into the rubber stamp National People’s Congress, where she found that her freedom to speak up for her people was constrained, landing her a jail term followed by exile when she spoke out against a crackdown on protests. As in Tibet, heavy investment and mass migration only seem to have delivered Beijing more headaches.
One of the most intriguing figures is Renji, the daughter of the 10th Panchen Lama, whom Johnson interviews a number of times. Now a twenty-something woman studying for a PhD in Beijing, Renji is a truly extraordinary figure, the daughter of a Han Chinese woman and Tibet’s second most senior lama, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1989. Raised in China and schooled in America under the sponsorship of Steven Seagal, she now receives patronage from the highest levels in Beijing, a clear attempt to create a model of Han-Tibetan harmony. Yet she obviously adored her father, the man who stood up to Beijing not once but twice, at terrible cost to himself. And she gets a rapturous reception when she visits Tibet. Like many people interviewed for this book, Renji has no choice but to play her cards close to her chest. The one certainty is that as the future unfolds, seismic shifts of power will take place amongst the leaders and groups, religious and secular, who are rapidly emerging on the Tibetan scene.
Meanwhile, China’s newly ascendant nationalism fosters even greater intolerance towards so-called ‘separatists’, and Beijing is ever more willing to lean on foreign powers to stay clear of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. But the most telling incident of all is when the author visits the TAR without official authorisation, planning to use a visit to Everest Base Camp as his fallback story if challenged. On the way to Shigatse his car is pulled over by police, and he fears that his journey is about to come to an abrupt end. The authorities have been watching his group since they arrived in Lhasa. But the problem is not that they don’t have permits – rather, a Chinese travel service is upset that they have opted to hire their car from a Tibetan rival at a cheaper price. Johnson agrees to switch travel agents, and drives on to Everest to continue with his reporting.