For decades “Free Tibet” has been a cause ‘celebre’ adopted by college students and celebrities, self-made activists pushing for a vague notion of world peace.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious and political leader of Tibet, is internationally esteemed as a moral authority, making frequent appearances in the United States and Europe. Still, the Western world knows alarmingly little about Tibet’s current situation.
As China continues to rise in the ranks of world power, it is encroaching more and more on Tibet-not only to use the territory for a rapidly expanding Chinese population, but with the hopes of strangling Tibetan culture to ensure it is not a threat.
With Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World But Lost the Battle With China, but Lost the Battle with China (Nation Books; February 1, 2011), award-winning journalist Tim Johnson crafts a searing portrait of modern Tibet under the yoke of imperialist China, offering a fuller picture of this complicated dynamic through the eyes of the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama himself.
Johnson crosses Himalayan mountain passes, treks to nomad resettlements, and has uncomfortable ran-ins with the Chinese government in his quest to understand the Tibetan resistance and their struggle for freedom.
Foremost on Johnson’s agenda is to highlight China’s insidious plans for Tibet on its quest for superpower status. In addition to hindering Tibetans’ free expression of religion, press, and politics, China is steadily working to dilute their ethnic population.
The construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, a $4.1 billion feat of engineering that connects Beijing to Lhasa on the highest rails in the world, has facilitated the settlement of millions of Han Chinese in an otherwise isolated territory and strengthening China’s control on the region. The government further aims to obliterate Tibetans’ ancestral, nomadic way of life by forcing them into subsidized urban housing.
Through meetings with Tibetan exiles and resistance leaders from other minority ethnic groups in China (such as the Uighurs and Mongolians), Johnson gives a thorough account of China’s goals of expansion, and who is hurt the most.
Lying at the crux of Tibet’s future is the Dalai Lama. Revered by his people as a god-king and reviled by the Chinese as corrupt, the Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959, unable to make any concrete changes in the lives of Tibetans at home. Yet despite his lack of direct political power, the Dalai Lama’s dedication to democracy and religious freedom, and his closeness to Western public figures, has terrified the Communist Chinese regime for nearly half a century.
Tragedy in Crimson gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into one of the world’s most respected and most mysterious personas-a profile that appeals to history-buffs and pop-culture enthusiasts alike. Johnson visits the Dalai Lama at the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, and later follows him on a two-week speaking tour in the United States to gain insight into the motivations of the controversial leader.
Uncovering the personality behind the movement, the man behind the mantra, he follows the Dalai Lama’s daily meal and meditation routine and witnesses casual interact;.ons with audiences. We learn of the monk’s erstwhile refusal to fly anything but economy class, his avoidance of cell phones, and his travel entourage of attendees, interpreters, bodyguards, and a personal secretary. We are even privy to some childhood anecdotes.
The book offers a similar exploration of the stories of ordinary Tibetans, whose extraordinary lives are ruled by the threat of a Chinese takeover. With the insight of an accomplished journalist and the enthusiasm of a travel novelist, Johnson unpacks his political narrative while hiking the Himalayas, delving into one of the most impassable regions of the world.
We accompany him on the remarkable sky train from Beijing to Lhasa, where views of the Tibetan landscape compete only with the discomfort of a severe altitude headache. We travel with him to remote nomadic settlements, where he sips yak-buttered tea and watches government censored videos of modern Tibetan singers. And we hike alongside him through Himalayan mountain passes, where he meets Tibetan youths trying to escape to India and Pakistan.
Staggering in scope, vivid and audacious in its narrative aims, Tragedy in Crimson tells the story of a region at the precipice of the world, teetering on the brink of cultural annihilation. It is a harrowing history of the Tibetan struggle to defend its heritage, both at home and abroad, from the immense threat of the Chinese-one that provides insight into an aspect of current events that, given China’s rise as a global superpower, is more relevant to Westerners than we might care to admit.
Tim Johnson has spent the last twenty years as a foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, and the McClatchy Company. He spent six years as Beijing bureau chief for the latter two companies, and traveled from the nomadic huts and monasteries of the Tibetan Plateau to the heart of the Tibetan exile movement in India-on tour with the Dalai Lama-to compile the research for this book.
Johnson’s work has been featured in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others, and he is now based in Mexico City.