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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Clear view of China from Tibet

March 18, 2011

Jerry Large

Seattle Times staff columnist

"Tragedy in Crimson" is about China and Tibet, but has lessons for us.

The book by journalist Tim Johnson is subtitled "How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China." Johnson believes the way China deals with Tibet says something about how an increasingly powerful China may deal with its close neighbors and even the United States.

"China's ruling party has a give-no-quarter style on minorities," Johnson told me over lunch this week. And its relationship with Tibet and the Dalai Lama is, he said, emblematic of how China treats opposition.

The book recounts repression of voices of dissension inside China and the pressure that leadership there brings to those outside who want to do business with China.

When the Dalai Lama visited Seattle in 2008, the Chinese consul in San Francisco wrote to then-University of Washington President Mark Emmert urging him and the university not to engage with the Buddhist leader. The UW did host the Dalai Lama but steered clear of the Tibet question.

Johnson was in Seattle to speak to the World Affairs Council, which provides opportunities for people in this area to learn about the rest of the world.

Johnson's maternal grandparents were Methodist missionaries in China in the 1920s, and his mother was born there. Johnson spent his early years in Thailand, and he doesn't ever seem to stop moving around.

I've known him for a decade, since we were Knight Fellows at Stanford University.

He's been a foreign correspondent for 20 years and is Mexico City bureau chief for the McClatchy Newspaper group.

The book grows from the six years he spent in China, 2003-2009. He watched the country grow at hyperspeed — at one point he counted 13 construction cranes within three blocks of his apartment building.

Chinese leaders have embraced capitalism, but not Western-style democracy. China is taking no chance that democracy protests like those erupting across North Africa and the Middle East will flourish on its soil. It moved quickly to quash calls for protests, and this week security agents assaulted journalists who tried to cover rallies.

The Chinese are good at keeping a lid on. On one occasion, Johnson and two other journalists got around restrictions on media visits to Tibet by slipping in as tourists.


When they eventually were stopped, their questioners showed them a log of every taxi ride they'd taken, including what they'd discussed and who they'd visited on the journey.

Despite government restrictions, Johnson was able to interview numerous Tibetans and Chinese from nomads to the Dalai Lama. One of the strengths of the book is that the politics and history he writes about are leavened by his portraits of people and their lives.

He describes sitting with a nomad family in a hut warmed by a yak-dung fire, watching DVDs of Tibetan singers on an old TV. The family and their neighbors have a relationship to the land and to their animals that is a fundamental part of their identity.

China has a resettlement program it says is bringing nomads into the modern world; the nomads worry that their culture is being lost. Sometimes each side has a point, but rarely does either acknowledge that.

In the book, Johnson keeps returning to the Dalai Lama, who is a man of tremendous influence, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, a frequent visitor to world leaders and a favorite of Hollywood celebrities. And yet he can do little for Tibetans.

Johnson says the Dalai Lama will turn 76 in a few months. He is waiting for the authoritarian government in China to fall, and the Chinese government is waiting for him to die.

In the meantime, younger Tibetans are growing more restless. China encourages the settlement of ethnic Han, the majority population in China, in Tibet, where they have already transformed the cities. They run the businesses. They give streets Mandarin names. Han already outnumber Mongolians in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. How soon will that happen in Tibet?

The one clear thing is that China will not back down or compromise. Is that how China will exercise its increasing power in the rest of the world?

Johnson's book is a good primer on how China wields its power.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346

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