Tragedy in Crimson

How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China


By Tim Johnson

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Tragedy in Crimsonis award-winning journalist Tim Johnson’s extraordinary account of the cat-and-mouse game embroiling China and the Tibetan exile community over Tibet. Johnson reports from the front lines, trekking to nomad resettlements to speak with the people who guard Tibet’s slowly vanishing culture; and he travels alongside the Dalai Lama in the campaigns for Tibetan sovereignty. Johnson unpacks how China is using its economic power around the globe to assail the Free Tibet movement. By encouraging massive Chinese migration and restricting Tibetan civil rights, the Chinese are also working to dilute Tibetan culture within Tibet itself. He also takes a sympathetic but unsentimental look at the Dalai Llama, a popular figure in the West who is regarded as a failure by many of his own people. Staggering in scope, vivid and audacious in its narrative aims, Tragedy in Crimson tells the story of a people on the brink of cultural extinction and the rising nation that is quashing them.


For my wife, Tanya, and my mother, Jean


THE BASIS FOR THIS BOOK IS SIX YEARS OF LIVING IN CHINA AND writing about the epochal changes that transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people. When I first arrived in Beijing in 2003, the working environment for foreign journalists was not easy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs required us to inform our minders every time we planned to take a trip out of the capital. Regulations also stated that we needed official approval for every single interview we conducted, including people on the street. In reality, most of us flouted the rules. We had to: We couldn't do our jobs waiting endlessly for approval and then travel with local Foreign Office minders constantly by our side. When we got caught outside of Beijing, local security officials would often demand that we write a ziwo piping—a selfcriticism—acknowledging that we broke the regulations.
The atmosphere changed in early 2008. As part of its obligations to the international community for hosting the Summer Olympic Games, China relaxed the rules for foreign journalists. We no longer had to inform the ministry of trips or obtain permission for interviews, as long as the interviewees were amenable to taking questions. To its credit, China has maintained the more open environment after the Games. But some restrictions are still in effect. Tibet is off limits to journalists unless they obtain a permit, akin to a visa, which is rarely available. Indeed, Tibet is one of several topics that remain virtually radioactive for the ruling party. In journalistic shorthand, those topics are the three Ts and one F—meaning Taiwan, Tibet, and the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement crushed by Chinese troops in June 1989; the F refers to the Falun Gong meditation sect that rapidly expanded in China in the late 1990s before it was harshly suppressed and declared an "evil cult."
In 2007, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology set off an academic brouhaha with an article in the respected Far Eastern Economic Review. Carsten A. Holz suggested that Western scholars held an often unacknowledged interest in not provoking China. First, those whose mother tongue is not Mandarin spend years mastering the language, an investment they don't want to go down the drain. Then when it comes to field research, scholars usually must cooperate with academics in China to collect data. Since China's research institutions and universities answer to the party, "surveys are conducted in a manner that is acceptable to the party, and their content is limited to politically acceptable questions," he wrote.1 Others rely on prized key connections within the party or at major institutions to do research, constraining their actions. Not all China researchers feel pressure equally, Holz wrote, noting that political scientists and economists might feel it the most.
The article raised a ruckus among China scholars, some of whom protested Holz's charges. It was a prickly issue. No Western scholar would want to admit to tailoring research to maintain crucial access in China. And in fact, some bold enquiry on sensitive topics does exist. But I found the matter had substance—not only for academics but also for business executives willing to bend core principles of their companies in order to enter the huge China market, and even for some journalists who have made reporting from China their long-term career calling. An experienced China hand who suddenly finds himself or herself on China's "black list," unable to get a visa to attend conferences or confronting cancellation of residency, may face a major career setback. While the number of such cases may be small, perhaps a dozen or two dozen people, they have a large impact, causing many others to hesitate to conduct sensitive research in China or speak out about events there.
I've personally experienced the kind of pressure China can bring to bear. One day in November 2008, I received an email that gave me a jolt. The bureau chief in Washington for the media company that employs me, McClatchy Newspapers, wrote that Chinese diplomats in San Francisco were asking to see the chief executive officer to talk about my news coverage of China. The email arrived while I was traveling in Dharamsala, India, reporting on Tibetan issues. I wrote back that I had no idea what might be troubling China's Foreign Ministry. But my mind raced. It was hard to concentrate over the next few days. I knew that this level of interest in my work would certainly cause editors to exhibit extra care. It might even affect my own actions, perhaps subconsciously.
A month or so later, I was in Washington and asked the bureau chief what became of the meeting with the Chinese diplomats and the CEO. "They wanted to know about your book on Tibet," he said. I nearly fell on the floor, both in relief and in shock. How would the Chinese diplomats even know that I was writing a book, not to mention its subject? The answer was obvious. I hadn't had contact with Foreign Ministry officials for over a year. So the only way they could know of my plans to write a book (which I had shared with very few people) was if someone in China's state security apparatus had been monitoring my email and listening to my phone calls. This alone wasn't a surprise. Like all diplomats and foreign correspondents based in China, one presumes that state security agents monitor microphones installed in apartments, offices, and cars. China is increasingly free, especially for those Chinese or foreigners who have no interest in politics. But for anyone else deemed a threat or touching on sensitive topics, the state has a thousand eyes and a thousand ears. They had been listening to and watching me. They wanted me to know it, so they sent a shot across the bow of my employer. I found it chilling.
But what happened to me is amplified for Tibetans. This book unfolds over the course of a long journey, in reality a series of journeys over several years. It reveals the Tibetan experience through many perspectives, among them those of the nomad, the monk, the angry young exile, and the unique story of a young Tibetan woman with ties to the highest level of the ruling party. With each chapter, the chasm between Tibetan and majority Han Chinese comes into sharper relief. Behind largely fictitious verbiage pledging "autonomy," and while promising "leapfrog development," Beijing emasculates Tibetans. It has opened the floodgates to domestic migrants who weaken the Tibetans' grasp of their identity and culture. In my research for this book, I traveled to the frigid reaches of the high Himalayas, across Nepal and India, and with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama on a lengthy speaking tour in the United States. The reader will observe how China has used its growing might to thwart Tibetans at nearly every turn, at home and abroad, in the digital realm and in the lawmaking halls of foreign capitals from Canberra to Washington.
If the writing contains a sense of urgency, it is because the endgame for Tibet has begun. The Dalai Lama is advancing in years, and the atheists of the ruling party claim the right to approve his eventual successor. As they have done with lesser lamas, they will ensure that his reincarnation is pliant to their interests. This is devastating to Tibetans. The renown of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has elevated the Tibetan issue to all corners of the globe, and when his candle dies out, hopelessness may well set in. This story is not just about the fate of some six million Tibetans. It is about how the authoritarian party at the helm of a rising China treats those it perceives as a threat to its monopoly grip on power, especially when they wield alluring ideas about self-governance, human dignity, and religious freedom. In response, China uses bullying and heavy repression, and in the global arena it coerces its trading partners to accept its view of history. This doesn't only affect Tibetans. As China grows stronger in the future, it may affect every one of us.
My stint in China came to an end, and I have now been reposted to another part of the world. Perhaps that allows me some additional candor in describing my experience. I still have family history in China, though. My grandparents spent nearly the same length of time in China that I did, only eight decades earlier. My two daughters consider Beijing home. We lived there longer than anywhere else during their childhood. The younger girl attended a well-known Chinese elementary school, Fangcaodi (Fragrant Grass), for five years, and her spoken Mandarin could be mistaken for one of the native students. Yell out her Chinese name, Jiang Feifei, when she is on a playground or in a crowded area, and her head whips around. That is how closely she is connected to her Chinese identity.
While I am free to express my views candidly, many of those with whom I spoke cannot. I interviewed dozens of Tibetans over the course of more than two years. Only a few of them appear in these pages, and in some cases I have needed to change their names for their own safety, in which case I use a single Tibetan name. I have used real full names for all Tibetans quoted in chapters set outside of China. But even abroad, some Tibetans were reluctant to speak. One night at a dinner in the Boston area not long ago, a well-educated Tibetan whom I had met on a previous trip and who had agreed to collaborate with me on her family history suddenly broke down in sobs and begged me not to write about her, fearing the repercussions for family members still in China. This book is written in the hope that people like her may one day live without such fear.
Mexico City

chapter one
The Big Gamble
History? That's up to historians, up to legal experts. Let them say.
It doesn't matter. Past is past. What's important is future.
—The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tokyo press conference, November 3, 2008
THE DAY OF MY INTERVIEW WITH THE DALAI LAMA, I AWOKE excited and nervous. I had asked him questions in crowded press conferences and seen him speak more than a dozen times in theaters, hotel ballrooms, conference halls, and even an American football stadium. But I had never had the chance to ask questions while having his undivided attention. I had observed enough to know that he was engaging and jovial yet eager to cut to the heart of a matter. I also had heard that he could bring an interview to an end if he felt his interviewer was asking ill-informed questions. Some fears lurked in the back of my mind: If he were truly an enlightened being, the emanation of the Buddha of Compassion, could he read my mind? Would I feel exposed and vulnerable?
I staggered sleepily over to the window of my guesthouse in Dharamsala, the Indian hill station, and peered down at the monsoon-season storm clouds already gathered over the Kangra Valley below. The deep-throated sound of monks chanting their early morning prayers drifted up from the Tsuglagkhang Temple complex, which sits on a saddle leading to the forested knoll where the Dalai Lama has his office and residence.
I trundled down to the Coffee Talk Cafe on Temple Road and ordered a cappuccino and waffles with honey and jam. Itinerant Tibetan vendors were busy pushing their carts into place along the other side of the road to sell turquoise and coral jewelry and other wares to the Indian tourists flocking up from the broiling heat of the Punjab, the adjacent province in India's north, abutting Pakistan, known for its punishing extremes of temperature. The street scene was endlessly fascinating. Tibetan monks walked by, some noisily in groups, others in bowed-head solitude. Tibetan women in brightly colored striped aprons chattered loudly as they strolled by the backpackers and travelers arriving from all over the globe. When I turned around, the towering Dhauladhar Mountains provided a majestic backdrop. Not far behind them lay the border with China and Tibet.
Close to the appointment time, I walked down the hill through the temple grounds and out into a large courtyard. Further on was the yellow compound of the Dalai Lama, in front of which stood well-armed Indian security guards. The Indian government provides the same level of security to the Dalai Lama that it gives to cabinet secretaries and senior members of its own government. Off to one side is an entry hall, where both Tibetan and Indian security agents question visitors. A couple of days earlier, I had arrived for a meeting with the Dalai Lama's personal assistant and had forgotten my passport. They let me through only after questioning me at length, examining various press cards, and calling the assistant himself. Even though they recognized me this time, they flipped through every page of my passport and asked me further questions. After I removed keys and coins and other items from my pockets, a guard frisked me with a thoroughness I had only experienced at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport. He patted around each leg and then felt my buttocks, groin, chest, and back. Satisfied with my harmlessness, they allowed me to gather my tape recorder and digital camera from the tray that had emerged from an X-ray machine, and signaled for me to walk to a yellow waiting hall.
I took a seat in an octagonal-shaped room, one of several waiting halls. A slight breeze came in through the open windows. Around me, a handful of women spoke in Chinese. Many of them clutched plastic bags of items like notebooks and incense. Soon, at least a dozen other people filled the cushioned benches against the walls of the small room. I wondered if all were going to see the Dalai Lama and if my meeting would be shorter than the planned forty-five minutes. I reviewed my questions and waited about twenty minutes before one of the Dalai Lama's polished young aides, Tenzin Taklha, appeared at the door and motioned for me to follow him. Tenzin spoke to me in American-accented English acquired during his childhood in New Jersey. His father was the Dalai Lama's elder brother, so today his boss is not only the most renowned Tibetan lama, or Buddhist teacher, on the face of the Earth but also his uncle.
Obtaining a meeting with the Dalai Lama—a pre-eminent religious figure who has risen to become a global icon of humanistic values—was not as difficult as it might seem. Eight months earlier, I had sent a letter to the Dalai Lama's office in India identifying myself as a journalist based in Beijing. I would soon be concluding a six-year stint as bureau chief in China for the third-largest chain of dailies in the United States, McClatchy Newspapers. I explained that I wanted to end my Beijing assignment with a book about the Tibet issue, written from the perspective of a journalist who had traveled to nearly every corner of China and was well aware that any book about the future of Tibet would also be about China's more muscular role in the world. A few weeks later, I turned up in India for a news event and made my pitch in person. I was in no hurry for the interview because I had much reporting still to do. A little more than six months later, I was beginning the book in earnest and sent an email to one of the Dalai Lama's top aides. Almost immediately, I received a response from Tenzin Taklha saying that an interview was scheduled for a date six weeks off. He suggested that I limit my questions and give him a heads-up about the topics. "Let me warn you that His Holiness tends to give lengthy answers to questions. This may result in you not being able to ask all your intended questions within the allotted interview time."1
I did as I was asked and prepared questions on Tibet's restive social situation and on the growing apprehension among Tibetans over the eventual death of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, a septuagenarian who has entered his twilight years. Tibetans revere and venerate the Dalai Lama as a god-king, viewing him as a physical and spiritual manifestation of an aspect of the Buddha himself. I'd seen them break into tears or fall on the ground in prostration on seeing him. They believe that as a reincarnation of thirteen previous Dalai Lamas, he embodies the vast wisdom and insight of all of his predecessors.
Since Buddhism's appearance in Tibet around the seventh century, its followers have uniquely come to believe that a few hundred senior lamas, or tulkus, have mastered the death and rebirth process, choosing the manner of their rebirth and returning continuously to help humanity achieve enlightenment. Over the centuries, Tibetan Buddhism branched into four major schools, and the most revered in the largest Gelugpa tradition are the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. By the seventeenth century, the Dalai Lama was established as the predominant political and spiritual power in central Tibet. In recent times, nearly all followers of Tibetan Buddhism, regardless of tradition, have come to venerate him as a savior being, and his prominence has grown far beyond the arc of the Himalayas.2 In the world at large, although not in China, the Dalai Lama is an admired moral figure who espouses nonviolence and encourages humanity to cultivate loving kindness. He circles the globe several times a year meeting world leaders, elevating awareness about China's chokehold on Tibet, and speaking on pressing universal concerns such as global warming and nuclear proliferation. He's impishly good-humored and a media darling, winning headlines and television airtime wherever he goes.
But for all of the Dalai Lama's global fame, Tibetans are no closer to winning greater freedom under China. And China energetically vilifies him, calling him a diabolical mastermind who seeks to sever Tibet from the bosom of the motherland. In recent times, China has used its growing economic clout to threaten any nation that receives the Dalai Lama, warning of economic consequences. Even model democratic leaders of countries like South Africa and Costa Rica have heeded the warnings, urging him not to come or canceling his visa. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama's eventual death will mark a watershed, ridding China's ruling party of a prominent global critic beloved in many parts of the world, but also potentially radicalizing Tibetans despairing over their lack of a freer homeland.
Tenzin Taklha walked me to a spacious waiting room adjacent to the Dalai Lama's reception hall, up a hillock. Around the knoll were dramatic views of the valley dropping sharply below and the seventeen-thousand-foot peaks behind. Crows cawed from the wooded thickets around the complex, and hawks soared in the sky overhead, gliding on summer thermals. Tall, thin evergreens, known as deodars, cloaked the hill. I saw no monkeys as we walked, but I knew they were not far away. Buddhist chanting could be heard from the temple down the hill. The chanting was peaceful and resonant, reassuring in its baritone fullness. I was led into an empty room with many divans and coffee tables, and windows on all sides. Several people stopped by to assure me the interview would commence shortly. I looked out the windows to see a group of visitors lined up, ready to receive a brief blessing. Before I had time to think much about it, I saw the Dalai Lama amble up a driveway toward the line. He was grinning slightly, pressing his palms together in front of his chest in greeting. The visitors bowed slightly and expectantly, some wiping away tears. He walked slowly up the line, exchanging a few words with each one, clasping their hands between his, touching the packages of items that they had brought for him to bless. Before the Dalai Lama reached the end of the line, an aide signaled for me to enter his special reception room and wait for him there.
The room was simple and comfortable. A green Tibetan carpet covered much of the floor, and eleven thangkas, large embroidered religious scroll paintings depicting images of Buddha or other deities, hung from the walls. Two couches and four easy chairs in beige upholstery filled the room. A few other simple chairs were set against a wall. Fresh yellow flowers in modest vases graced several windowsills. An aide signaled for me to sit on the couch, indicating that the Dalai Lama would occupy a chair next to one end. I stood to await him. Three of the Dalai Lama's top aides entered first, including two personal secretaries and a Mandarin-speaking expert on Tibetan affairs. Then he entered smiling, squeezed my outstretched hands briefly, and sat. He wore his trademark crimson robe, with a mustard-colored tunic showing at the shoulder. Even his socks were crimson, and on his feet were lace-up brown leather shoes, which he did not remove. His left wrist bore a loose-fitting watch with a metal band. He wore the watch so that the dial rested on the part of the inner wrist where nurses often check one's pulse. Although he had been briefed already, I explained that I was an American journalist finishing a lengthy tour in China and writing a book on Tibet.
"I hope you're not brainwashed!" he blurted out, laughing heartily and clapping his hands together.3
The Dalai Lama spoke in conversational English, occasionally omitting a needed verb or mangling syntax and switching into Tibetan, looking to an aide for a colloquial translation. He turned attentive, asking when the book would be published and suggesting that a Chinese version would be useful. "The Chinese people have the common sense. So if they've got true information, then they will use common sense. But some of their leaders, hard-liners, one part of the brain where common sense develops is missing." Again, he laughed with gusto.
I told him of the travels I had undertaken in Tibetan areas, and we entered a discussion about the dramatic civil unrest that erupted across much of the Tibetan Plateau in March 2008. The unrest was intense and widespread, marking the greatest challenge by Tibetans to Chinese rule since the Dalai Lama had fled into exile nearly a half century earlier. The protests began peacefully, but in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, rock-throwing mobs upended and torched cars, set bonfires, and left city streets in smoldering rubble, shocking many Chinese with the intensity of their anger. Following the Lhasa rioting, largely peaceful demonstrations broke out in more than a hundred other locations over subsequent weeks. Beijing immediately barred foreigners from entering Tibet, and tens of thousands of security forces poured onto the Plateau.
Curiously, a majority of the protests occurred a great distance from Lhasa, at the far reaches of the Tibetan Plateau, outside of what Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region, unfolding in ethnic Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces. I asked the Dalai Lama why those areas had shown such restiveness. He whispered something in Tibetan to one of the three aides in the room, and a map was quickly brought to a table. He then offered several explanations. Regional Communist Party officials in central Tibet exert "very, very tight control," he said. He paraphrased the Han Chinese party boss who was in charge of the Tibet Autonomous Region at the time, Zhang Qingli, who reportedly said after the Lhasa riot that those Tibetans who needed to be executed would be executed, a pledge carried out over the next year or so.
The Dalai Lama pointed to the outlying areas of the Tibetan Plateau. "These are the real border areas with China for last seven hundred years. These people are toughened. Before 1950, this area was controlled neither by Tibetan government nor by Chinese government. Warlords [controlled it]," he said. "They were something like semi-independent." Living in chaotic border areas for centuries has made Tibetans there rugged and even belligerent. "In these areas," he said, pointing to a Tibetan area of modern southeastern Qinghai province, "there's a saying that if the men of the household don't go out and rob and steal, then they aren't real men." He chuckled. Party officials in outlying areas, he added, have a history of more lenient control, and Tibetans can communicate with each other about their grievances in less fear. So after the initial spasm of violence in Lhasa, word spread more quickly in outlying areas, and they rose up peacefully.
I asked him about who would lead the struggle to protect Tibet culture and Buddhism once he passes from the scene. The Dalai Lama quickly began citing a number of young lamas. At the top of his list was the Karmapa, the twenty-something leader of one of four main streams or lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu school. Handsome and charismatic, the Karmapa fled to India in late 1999 and has become very popular among Tibetan exiles. The Dalai Lama named others. "Many of these lamas have great potential," he said. Some remain working quietly in Tibet, fluent in Chinese and Tibetan, familiar with social conditions on the Plateau, and waiting for the right moment to seek exile or disposed to remain under watchful party eyes. He didn't immediately touch on a central question—his own reincarnation—a matter that deeply unsettles Tibetans these days and could have ramifications for the future of China.
The Dalai Lama was born in mid-1935, and the day when he may slip off to what Tibetans call the "heavenly fields" may not be so far off. Tibetans universally hope that religious tradition will follow its course and senior lamas using omens, oracles, and other hints will identify a young lad as his reincarnation, eventually installing him as the Fifteenth Dalai Lama. Many Buddhists believe that sentient beings endlessly cycle to new births. Tibetan Buddhists uniquely believe that a tulku, or reincarnation of a great Buddhist master, can channel his mind stream (similar to spirit) to a new life, a young boy who will share his enlightenment. Generally, an aged Dalai Lama leaves some sign or hint, perhaps contained in a poem, about where to hunt for his reincarnation. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has said it is up to Tibetans themselves if they think the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue. The reincarnation would come outside of China, where freedom is greater, he has said, and could even occur in a mystical process known as madey tulku, in which his successor is reborn while he is still alive, giving himself an opportunity to train the boy.


On Sale
Feb 1, 2011
Page Count
352 pages
Bold Type Books

Tim Johnson

About the Author

In 1975, Dr. Timothy Johnson M.D. joined ABC News as the medical reporter and later became the “Medical Editor” of Good Morning America when the program premiered. In over three decades at ABC News, he has reported for World News Tonight, Nightline, and 20/20. He is now the ABC News Senior Medical Contributor. Dr. Johnson is the founding editor of the Harvard Medical School Health Letter and co-editor of the Harvard Medical School Health Letter Book. He is also co-editor of the book Your Good Health, co-author of Let’s Talk and author of Dr. Timothy Johnson’s On-Call Guide to Men’s Heath and Finding God in the Questions: A Personal Journey. Dr. Johnson is married with two children and three grandchildren.

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