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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

An Exile's Long Journey

February 18, 2011

Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the
Battle With China
By Tim Johnson
Nation Books, 333 pages, $26.99


During his state visit to Washington in January, Chinese Communist Party
General Secretary Hu Jintao reiterated China's claims to Tibet and
Taiwan as "core interests." Mr. Hu's concern might seem odd, considering
that the summit was devoted to difficult economic issues and North
Korea. Taiwan seems for the moment beyond Beijing's reach, while Tibet
is firmly under its control.

If Beijing's leaders feel compelled to assert claims to Tibet and
Taiwan, it is because these places are not merely territorial
interests—they are ideological, even existential, challenges to
communist rule.

In "Tragedy in Crimson," Tim Johnson, a former Beijing bureau chief for
the Knight-Ridder and McClatchy newspaper groups, reports on—as his
subtitle has it—"How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the
Battle With China." The exiled leader is revered by Tibetans and by
politicians and celebrities around the world, but he is still under
siege by the Chinese Communist Party, 60 years after China invaded Tibet
and eventually drove him into exile.

 From his base in India, where he has lived since 1959, the Dalai
Lama—the political and spiritual leader of Tibet, believed by Tibetan
Buddhists to be the 14th reincarnation of the Boddhisattva of
Compassion—has watched as the CCP attacked Tibetan religion and culture.
The Potala, the seat of Tibetan political and religious authority, was
converted into a kitschy tourist attraction. The Chinese also
implemented massive building projects to facilitate an influx of Han
Chinese and People's Liberation Army troops and the extraction of
natural resources.

As Mr. Johnson notes, if a similar campaign of cultural annihilation
were unleashed today, it would provoke intense international reaction.
For a time, in the 1960s, it did. Legal experts and the United Nations
judged that Tibet's sovereignty and human rights had been violated. The
U.S. trained Tibetan resistance fighters in the 1950s and '60s but
abandoned them when President Nixon decided, for strategic reasons, to
establish diplomatic relations with China.

Tibet's prospects might seem grim. The Dalai Lama takes a different
view. He is no Pollyanna and has expressed his "thinning" patience with
the unproductive dialogue between his representatives and the Chinese
government. However, he believes that the end of Chinese Communist rule
will come sooner rather than later, and that Tibetans and Chinese can
live together. He even tries to communicate directly with the Chinese
people—through, for example, an online discussion last year arranged by
the writer Wang Lixiong. And Chinese dissidents like the jailed Nobel
Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo have made a vital, albeit repressed
challenge to official policy on Tibet.

In the meantime, the Dalai Lama pursues an international campaign. Mr.
Johnson tracks him from Dharamsala—the remote town in northern India
that has been a Tibetan-exile home for half a century—to foreign
capitals and other locales, where the Dalai Lama has attracted support
in the U.S. Congress and in human-rights organizations and on college
campuses, not to mention in Hollywood. The campaign began in earnest in
the 1980s, and the attention it drew succeeded in elevating Tibet as a
U.S. foreign-policy priority.

The preternaturally optimistic Dalai Lama has found that exile has its
advantages. "If I am considered most holy person in Potala, waste of
time," he has said. He acknowledges the positive influence of living in
democratic India and of traveling to the U.S. and other democracies.
Under his leadership, Tibet's government in exile—the Central Tibetan
Administration, which handles many affairs of the 150,000 Tibetans
displaced from their homeland—has democratized. In October, Tibetans in
India, Nepal, the U.S. and Europe voted in the first round of elections
to replace Lobsang Tenzin, a monk with the religious title, Samdhong
Rinpoche, as the leader of the CTA. The final round will be held next

Achieving democracy, the Dalai Lama believes, will be viewed as one of
the Tibetans' greatest achievements. Beijing sees it as a threat and has
interfered with the balloting in Nepal and Bhutan. The Chinese have also
resorted to using communist ideology to increase pressure on the Dalai
Lama: At a recent party meeting, Hu Jintao reportedly argued that ethnic
Tibetans' efforts to distinguish themselves from Han Chinese constitute
a dangerous "special contradiction" in Marxism.

The development of Tibetan democracy in exile also presents a challenge
for the U.S. American foreign policy on Tibet has limited goals, chiefly
to support cultural and religious preservation efforts and the fruitless
dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. Under the
Obama administration, support for Tibet has declined noticeably. The
president postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama out of deference to
Beijing, and last year a State Department report to Congress subtly
diminished the importance of Tibet in U.S.-China relations and implied
that the Dalai Lama lacks support within Tibetan society.

Washington's practice of avoiding political matters in its Tibetan
policy will be put to a test when the Dalai Lama, now 75, dies. The
ostensibly atheist CCP has already announced its intention to control
the identification of the next Dalai Lama, even issuing "guidelines on
reincarnation" that emphasize the need for patriotism and loyalty. For
his part, the Dalai Lama has said that his reincarnation will be found
in a "free country" because a reincarnate continues the work of his

That work has yielded considerable achievements, including democracy in
exile and the preservation of Tibet's culture and religion. "It is hard
to imagine how a Tibetan leader could have risen more suitably to the
times and challenges," Mr. Johnson writes, in clear admiration of the
Dalai Lama's resilience and moral purpose. Indeed, the story of "Tragedy
in Crimson" contains many elements of triumph.

—Ms. Bork is the director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign
Policy Initiative.

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