Posts tagged: Tibet

Book Review – Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in A Tibetan Town

By , December 21, 2020

Since 2017, the Chinese government has interred over a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, destroyed Uighur religious sites and limited – at times forcibly – the number of children a Uighur woman can have, all in what appears to be an effort to stamp out the Uighur culture.  This summer, in Inner Mongolia, the government instituted policies that restrict the use of Mongolian in local schools, an effort Mongolian parents maintain is designed to eliminate their language and culture.  For many outside of China, these policies are a shocking new development, reflective of the hardline approach of current President Xi Jinping.  But, as Barbara Demick shows in her harrowing new book, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, for Tibetans, cultural destruction has been a part of their lives for the last 70 years. 

Eat the Buddha tells the story of this destruction by focusing on Ngaba, a town on the Tibetan plateau that has earned the morbid distinction as “the undisputed world capital of self-immolations.”  Ngaba is not located in the Tibetan Special Autonomous Region (“SAR”), the area on a Chinese map that most non-Chinese think of as “Tibet.” Rather, Ngaba is located in the northwest region of China’s Sichuan province, and is an important reminder of just how far the Kingdom of Tibet once extended and how dispersed the Tibetan population is today. In fact, as Demick notes in her introduction, the vast majority of Tibetans in China live outside the Tibetan SAR, but this in no way lessens the Chinese government’s repressive rule. In many ways it is worse.  According to the International Campaign for Tibet, since 2009, 45 Tibetans in Ngaba have self-immolated in protest. In Lhasa, the capital of the of Tibet SAR, only two have. 

Map showing Ngaba’s location in China

In Eat the Buddha, Demick asks why. Why have so many in Ngaba chosen to set themselves on fire, especially in a religion where suicide is not an accepted practice. Demick answer this question by examining the lives of eight Ngaba residents spread across generations, from the daughter of the last king of Ngaba (Princess Gonpo) to a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl, captivated by Chinese social media and uninterested in her own culture (Dechen).  None of the people are particularly militant or even interested in Tibetan independence.  Even Princess Gonpo, whose family members died, some by suspicious means, during the Cultural Revolution, is not anti-China and sees some of the benefits of being a part of the world’s second largest economy. 

But as Demick tells their stories, each of the eight, even the younger ones, begin to resist Chinese rule and increasingly view the Chinese governments’ efforts in Ngaba as the degradation and ultimate destruction of their culture.  And as Demick shows, these efforts have not just been limited to policies designed to “assimilate” the Tibetans; some have been violent attacks on the Tibetan people.  Particularly harrowing is the retelling of the violence perpetuated on Delek’s grandparents in 1958 when he was just nine years old.  As he hid in basket in their home, he heard screams and the senseless beating of his grandparents.  When he emerged, this nine-year-old saw his grandmother, blood running down her head from where her braids had been ripped from her head.  More recently, Ngaba has seen the increase militarization of the police force, creating an air of violence and captivity in the city, and at times resulting in the loss of innocent, young lives.  For most of us who have studied Chinese history – at least those of us outside of the Mainland – we have been taught about the harshness of Chinese rule.  But Eat the Buddha, by putting a personal face on this human suffering for the past 70 years, horrifies in the way a history lesson never can. 

Chinese military on the streets of Ngaba around 2009

What Eat the Buddha also powerfully makes clear is that as much as the Chinese government attempts to censor this history in schools or tries to buy young Tibetan’s loyalty through a higher standard of living, these attempts ultimately fail.  Dechen is a perfect example. When we first meet her, she is a twelve-year-old Tibetan girl fluent in Mandarin who loves watching Chinese movies that glorify the Chinese military.  For her, Tibetan culture is for the old. But then, as Chinese rule becomes increasingly suffocating in Ngaba and her family members become victims of the government’s violence, she awakens her from her social media stupor. 

By the time Demick reaches the start of self-immolation period in 2009, the reader is not shocked. It is the last form of protest available to Ngaba’s Tibetans, particularly the young monks at the Kirti monastery, grandchildren of those Tibetans first exposed to the Chinese government’s oppressive and violent rule.  Unable to freely learn their religion and watching their culture be destroyed, they are left with nothing else but the ultimate sacrifice.  The sad truth though, these self-immolations, with their shocking nature and international attention, result in the easing of some restrictions.  45 monks had to kill themselves in the most horrific of ways for the Chinese government to listen. 

Ceremony at Ngaba’s Kirti Monestary

Eat the Buddha is a brilliant exposition of the Chinese efforts to eradicate a culture and how the culture pushes back.  But that push-back is not enough to save the Tibetan culture and one starts to wonder why other countries aren’t doing more.  Yes, some leaders, risking Beijing’s ire and meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists (Angela Merkel in 2007; Barak Obama in 2016).  But those are just symbolic gestures. And this is why Eat the Buddha is a must read. By telling Tibetan’s stories, Demick reminds us that the world’s commitment to human rights is more than just words, sometimes it is the difference between life and death for a people and their culture. Its time we give more than just words.

Rating: ★★★★★

Author Barbara Demick

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Penguin Random House, 2020), 352 pages.

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White House Press Release on Dalai Lama Visit and the Chinese Reaction

By , February 19, 2010

On Thursday, immediately following President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, the White House issued the below press release and photo:

Official White House Photo of President Obama and Dalai Lama

Official White House Photo of President Obama and Dalai Lama

Statement from the Press Secretary on the President’ s Meeting with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama

“The President met this morning at the White House with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama.  The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China. The President commended the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach, his commitment to nonviolence and his pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government.  The President stressed that he has consistently encouraged both sides to engage in direct dialogue to resolve differences and was pleased to hear about the recent resumption of talks.  The President and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China.”

Meanwhile, in China, the state-run news agency Xinhua, issued what appears to be a fairly tepid response given the Chinese government’s prior saber rattling:

China urges concrete U.S. actions to maintain healthy ties after Obama-Dalai meeting

BEIJING, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) — China urged the United States early Friday morning to take concrete actions for healthy development of bilateral ties after U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement it was regardless of China’s repeated solemn representations for the U.S. to obstinately arrange the meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama.

“The U.S. act grossly violated the norms governing the international relations, and ran counter to the principles set forth in the three China-U.S. joint communiques and the China-U.S. joint statement,” he said.

Obama, the Dalai Lama and Tibet – What’s all the Fuss?

By , February 18, 2010

The Dalai Lama at the U.S. Capitol

The Dalai Lama at the U.S. Capitol

President Obama welcomes the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, to the White House today. With this visit come renewed fears that U.S.-China relations are in a downward spiral.

Obama’s Meeting with the Dalai Lama will Not Harm U.S.-China Relations

The U.S. press has been adamant that President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama will strain U.S.-China relations.  But this fear is misplaced.  Similar to the inevitability of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the Chinese government knows that a meeting with the Dalai Lama is a done deal – a U.S. president, at some point during his term, will invite the Dalai Lama to the White House.

Since 1990, every U.S. president has met with the Dalai Lama.  Obama’s meeting today is far from a surprise to Beijing; it’s what U.S. presidents do.  The topic even came up during President Obama’s visit to Beijing in November.  And the Obama Administration was fully aware that any contact with the Dalai Lama would elicit an angry response from Beijing.  It always does.

These recent events – the decision to meet with the Dalai Lama and China’s vocal response – in no way reflect a change in policy; it’s not a reflection of China flexing its muscles nor is it a reflection of a more hard-line approach by the U.S.  It’s merely just par for the course in U.S.-China relations; a rite of passage of sorts.

This isn’t to say that there has not been a change in the relationship.  The U.S.’ vocal critique of China’s internet censorship and the increasingly belligerent tone regarding China’s currency could show a stronger stance toward China.  Additionally, if China votes against sanctions against Iran or decides to abstain from Six-Party talks with North Korea, this could symbolize a China feeling stronger in the world.  But the rhetoric surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit in no way represents a changed policy.

Beijing is Actually Happy about Obama’s Meeting with the Dalai Lama

President Bush & the Dalai Lama

President Bush & the Dalai Lama

Well, “happy” might be a bit of a stretch, but Beijing is, at the very least, satisfied with the concessions that President Obama has already made.  Beijing knows things could be much worse (for them at least).  In 2007, President George W. Bush welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House, and in a public ceremony, awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal.  Never before had a U.S. president met the Dalai Lama in public; and to award him with one of the highest civilian awards, just added insult to China’s injury.

Needless to say, this enraged the Chinese government, and post 2007, Beijing went on a global rampage to end foreign governments’ meetings with the Dalai Lama.  According to an interview with Tibetan scholar Robert J. Barnett, China has been largely successful with its strategy: “[l]ast year, only two national leaders met the Dalai Lama….compared to twenty-one in the previous four years.”

The Map Room: Less Prestigious perhaps, But more Ornate

The Map Room: Less Prestigious perhaps, But more Ornate

Comparatively, President Obama’s meeting tomorrow is much less confrontational than his predecessor’s.  President Obama will meet the Dalai Lama in private, and while the meeting will be held in the West Wing of the White House (not in the private residence as President Bill Clinton did and what the Chinese government would prefer), it will not be held in the Oval Office.  Instead, President Obama will meet the Dalai Lama in the less prestigious Map Room.  While this seems inconsequential to the American audience, this distinction is of high significance to China and is likely sufficient to placate the country.

So Why all the Hoopla?

In an interview with NPR, China historian Jeffery Wasserstrom explained the problem succinctly – both countries use this meeting to play toward their domestic audiences. If the U.S. president did not meet with the Dalai Lama, he would receive censure from Congress, human rights groups, and the public at large.  Last fall, prior to his trip to China, President Obama postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama and received a lot of heat for it; the move was portrayed as a way to gain favor with China prior to his visit to Beijing.

Similarly, the Chinese government must cater to its domestic audience; part of that catering is to use angry rhetoric

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi meets with the Dalai Lama; another meeting that angered beijing

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi meets with the Dalai Lama; another meeting that angered beijing

against any government leader who meets with the Dalai Lama.  To its people, the Chinese government portrays the Dalai Lama as a separatist intent on splitting Tibet from China.  Mix this with the Chinese government’s emphasis on nationalism, sovereignty and Tibet as an integral part of China, and you have a dangerous game.  The Chinese government has created a self-fulfilling prophecy – by encouraging strong feelings of nationalism, the people then demand that the Chinese government act upon any perceived slights to this nationalism.  In the case of Tibet, even though much of the people’s feelings are manufactured by the government, if the Chinese government does not respond with sharp attacks against anyone who meets with the Dalai Lama, then the people will begin to question its legitimacy.

The End Result for Tibet

So the dance continues.  But the third wheel here is the Tibetan people.  For the U.S. and China, this is a symbolic game to placate their respective domestic audiences; but for the Tibetans, this is about survival.  With each new U.S. president and with each new meeting with the Dalai Lama, there is a hope that the situation in Tibet can be resolved.

The Dalai Lama has not been allowed to return to his homeland and minister to his people, and the with an influx of ethnically Han Chinese into Tibet and laws that limit the Tibetan’s religious practices, it is questionable if the religion, the culture, and the people will be able to survive.  At the same time, negotiations between Beijing and envoys of the Dalai Lama have been at a standstill for over 15 years now, with the Tibetan side refusing to budge on its demand for greater autonomy, not just for the land mass of Tibet, but for all areas in China where there is a large population of Tibetans (this would be a little like Puerto Rico asking for greater autonomy for the island of Puerto Rico and also the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem and other areas of the U.S. with large Puerto Rican populations).  The Dalai Lama’s envoys met with officials in Beijing last month, but again the talks proved fruitless.

For the past 20 years, the U.S. has relied on symbolic gestures in its dealings with Tibet and has done little to actually move the dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and Beijing forward (see Melyvn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama).  There’s a lot of focus on the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House, but there is never a discussion as to why.  What does this do?  Where does this get the Dalai Lama?

What’s at stake here is more than just a popularity contest and the time for symbolic gestures has long passed.  Both China and the Dalai Lama are entrenched in their positions and neither is going to budge, but to move forward, a compromise is needed.  And each side does want to move forward; the Dalai Lama wants to return to Tibet and provide for greater religious freedom for Tibetans, and the Chinese government doesn’t want to live with the constant threat of riots and protests in the region.  But at this stage, a third-party, like the U.S., needs to step up to the plate to help negotiate a compromise – symbolic meetings won’t do the job.  Without the role of a third-party, there will never be progress.

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