Seven Years Not in Tibet7 min read

HT reviews Blessings from Beijing by Greg C. Bruno

In Blessings from Beijing, journalist Greg Bruno sets out to chronicle the slow fracturing of the Tibetan exile movement in India and Nepal. Once an international cause célèbre and a cultural force to be reckoned with, the movement is now entering its seventh decade and is showing signs of decline. The Dalai Lama is in his eighties, Chinese harassment is becoming better funded and more effective, and the younger generations of refugee Tibetans are jumping ship to the West, back to the PRC, or in any other direction they can. Bruno’s reports from fin-de-siècle Dharamsala are timely. However, his failure to grapple with the complexities of the 21st-century People’s Republic weakens his analysis, and the most interesting stories often seem just beyond his grasp.

Bruno devotes each chapter of the book to a different challenge facing the exile community. He begins with Chinese government pressure campaigns abroad, from threats against foreign leaders who meet with the Dalai Lama to boycotts of American film festivals that show pro-Tibetan films. He goes up to the Nepali-Tibetan border and talks with village headmen about PRC efforts to stem the flow of refugees over the passes, including direct operations by Chinese police within Nepal. There are a couple of well-written and interesting chapters about the precarious legal and social position of Tibetans in India – the complex legal limbo of their refugee status, tensions between Tibetan settlements and local populations, culture shock and substance abuse.

Another chapter deals with the Dorje Shukden controversy, a bizarre and very Tibetan affair involving the wandering, oracular soul of a murdered 16th-century hierarch, clandestine Chinese Communist Party money, and monastic assassinations. Ultimately this controversy has fractured the Dalai Lama’s own sect of Buddhism, the Geluk, against itself, with disastrous consequences for Tibetan political cohesion. From there, Bruno turns to the self-immolation movement within PRC-controlled Tibet, which has caused almost 150 Tibetans, mostly young people, to light themselves on fire in protest against government policy. This is the only part of the book where Bruno seriously attempts to peer over the border into the PRC, giving us a sensitive portrait of life and fiery death in the nomadic towns of the northern plateau. Finally, Bruno ends his catalogue of woes with a hopeful discussion of refugee out-migration to the West, although the reader wonders whether this is a real option for the mass of young Tibetans.

Several of these stories are well told, and there are no obvious faults in Bruno’s research. Nevertheless, his interviews in particular are strangely boring. It’s a bit like the so-called “Michael Moore school of documentary film,” except that instead of making a nuisance and getting himself roughed-up on camera by perimeter security, Bruno just feels awkward and leaves without anything interesting happening. A couple of high-level interviews go nowhere. The Dalai Lama “giggle[s] as he peer[s] over the dark metal rims of his Coke-bottle glasses” and doesn’t answer Bruno’s question. The Karmapa, another high-ranking exiled lama, “delivers his views with such gravity that one feels he has been contemplating for years the very question he was just asked,” before telling Bruno that the problems between China and Tibet should be solved through “harmony.”

All this makes for tepid reading, but much worse is Bruno’s decision to structure the book around his relationship with an elderly Tibetan man he calls “Pala,” or “Father.” “Pala” seems like a sweet old fellow, but he really has nothing interesting to say – in any case, he doesn’t speak English and Bruno doesn’t speak Tibetan. Eventually, Bruno finds a translator (“Pala’s” name turns out to be Purang Dorje), but instead of providing a touching emotional hook, these sections feel awkward and contentless. Given that Bruno went ten years without learning this man’s name, when he tells us that he is awed by Pala’s “unfailing commitment to [the third-century CE Indian philosopher] Nāgārjuna’s ethos,” it comes off as rather Orientalist.

Let’s not talk about Tibetan exiles and PRC-held Tibet as if never the twain shall meet

The above is all cosmetic. There’s a deeper problem with Blessings from Beijing: Greg Bruno never goes to Beijing. Despite the fact that Bruno has a Master of Science in the comparative anthropology of China, speaks some Chinese, and taught English there for a year in the 1990s, his research at no point leads him to cross the border. Except for the chapter about self-immolations, he never seriously wonders what’s going on over there. This leads to a series of lost opportunities. Bruno notes in passing that many exiled Tibetans are now choosing to return to PRC-controlled Tibet, but he never asks why, or what happens to them there. He writes that Chinese tourists and Buddhist pilgrims are pouring into Tibetan areas of Nepal and India, even visiting the Dalai Lama, but he doesn’t attempt to talk to these people, or to question what this implies for the future of Tibet.

Granted, Blessings from Beijing is a book about the exile community, not about PRC-held Tibet. However, China-watchers know that these days CCP sticks are usually paired with monetary carrots. The other half of the aggressive anti-Dalai-clique actions that Bruno describes is gargantuan investment, development, and poverty-alleviation projects in the Tibetan areas of the PRC. Tibetans in Tibet are, on the whole, a lot richer now than Tibetans in India. Nor is Tibetan religion necessarily being stamped out – some religious sites with political histories are tightly controlled, but Tibet generally now is covered in massive, opulent monasteries full of monks, often paid for by gazillionaire Chinese devotees. All of this, of course, affects the exiles too, in a million subtle and not-very-subtle ways. This failure to really think about how life is changing in 21st-century communist Lhasa (now a wealthy, modern, intensively surveilled, and majority-Sinophone city) renders a lot of Bruno’s other analysis incomplete.

Full disclosure: I’m being harsh on Bruno because I’ve spent six or seven years now living within the PRC, and reading his book I felt a profound unease about my own position there. Like a lot of people who have spent our lives engaged with China, I try to maintain a nuanced view of the country and its government. Atrocities such as the  self-immolation movement in Tibet, crackdowns on human rights lawyers, or the terrifying recent mass arrests in Xinjiang make me wonder if I’ve compromised myself by being so understanding. As anybody in my position should, I approach the now-democratic Tibetan Government in Exile with both intellectual caution and moral self-doubt. Exile propaganda seems shrill to me, and their self-appointed Western spokespeople are often painfully ignorant about realities within the PRC. Yet, for all their many flaws, exile Tibetans are fighting for the future of their people, for a free and democratic Tibet. Perhaps I have sided with the Quislings here?

Anyways, Greg Bruno gets it right in the end. In the last paragraphs of the book, he points out that the Tibetan Government in Exile is now a functioning democracy that lays claim to something over a fourth of the PRC’s land area. Tibetans in Tibet know this, as do those Chinese in Tibet who pay attention. This is the true hope of the Tibetan people, the actual threat to the PRC, and the real reason why China-watchers should read Bruno’s book. But going forward, let’s not talk about the Tibetan exiles and PRC-held Tibet as if never the twain shall meet. Like it or not, Tibetans are one community on two sides of the Himalayas. China has been trying to seal off that border for the last 60 years. We must resist. ∎

Greg Bruno, Blessings from Beijing (ForeEdge, April 2018).