Review: Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-power War on Tibet by Greg Bruno
These days, some books on Tibet are hopeful. Others speak of doom and gloom for Tibetans against the background of China’s rise and its willingness to throw its economic muscle around the world. Blessings from Beijing, a combination of fine travel writing and great reporting, expresses both fear and hope.
In his travels to Tibetan communities in America, Europe, India, and Nepal, Greg Bruno poses the question that is racking the minds of the Tibetan people: What would happen to Tibetans when the Dalai Lama is no longer with them? For older Tibetans both in Tibet and outside, those in their 70s and 80s, to pose the question itself is unthinkable, leave alone posit either a hopeful or fearful guess. But for young Tibetans on both sides of the Himalayas and beyond, the question is debated discreetly but fiercely because the eventual answer will impact their lives and decide the fate of the Tibetan people and their culture.
The question and possible answers to it become more poignant when one understands that Tibetan refugees have been able to establish a cohesive and dynamic community outside Tibet. The community is bound together by what Bruno calls a global “tourism empire” of monasteries, institutions of higher learning, Dharma centres, libraries, Tibetan medical centres, cultural institutions and a thriving civil society that maintains the vitality and relevance of Tibet’s civilization. In so doing, the Dalai Lama and the exile Tibetan community have captured “the world’s collective imagination”. It has attracted and been supported by a worldwide Tibet movement that is fighting for a better treatment of Tibet. Bruno writes, “In late 2016 there were some 2.5 million mentions of ‘Tibet’ on Facebook and over 73 million web pages with the word ‘Tibetan’ catalogued by Google; and at 13.1 million followers, the Dalai Lama was more popular on Twitter than the Presidents of Turkey, France, and Israel combined. In the world of social media, this Buddhist monk, his people, and the land they call ‘home’ are marketing demigods.”
But Bruno sees that this Tibetan refugee creation, what one scholar calls “one of the miracles of the twentieth century,” is fraying at the edges. To Bruno it is under stress both internally by what the author calls “self-inflicted wounds” and externally by “blessings from Beijing,” a reference to Beijing’s deployment of its statecraft on the refugee community. The “self-inflicted wounds,” according to the author, are migration to the West and declining birth rate, which are emptying the monasteries, schools and settlements, and “political and religious differences.”
But the focus of Bruno’s travel throughout the exile Tibetan world is China’s assault on the community. Deemed an affront to the dignity of the motherland and a challenge to its rule in Tibet, the community is at the receiving end of all the stratagems of the Art of War, of “winning without ever fighting.” By sowing dissension, spreading disinformation, dangling financial carrots in return for information and lavishly entertaining visiting lamas from exile, Beijing hopes to “cut off the serpent’s head.”
This robust attempt to assert Beijing’s influence on the exile Tibetan community and to change the international community’s opinion on Tibet was crafted at a meeting of Tibet scholars in Beijing in June 2000. The meeting was called by Zhao Qizheng, China’s propaganda tsar. At the meeting, Zhao Qizheng said, “This conference is summoned to discuss our national Tibetology and external propaganda works on Tibet. The aim is to discuss how we, under the new situation, can make our Tibetology work more effective for external propaganda on Tibet… Our struggle against the Dalai clique and hostile western forces is long-drawn, serious and complicated.”
In this war of words, Zhao Qizheng complained about the negative impact of some books on Beijing’s projection of its image of Tibet to the outside world. He cited Tsering Shakya’s book, The Dragon in the Land of Snows, which he said “became very famous and was clamoured as a surprising work.” He cited John Knaus’ book, Orphans of the Cold War: America and Tibet’s Struggle for Survival, which the minister said “created clamour for some time.” The minister added, “The Dalai-related books, such as The Art of Happiness, Ethics of the New Millennium … became US bestsellers in 1999. We cannot underestimate the negative impact of these books on our nation.”
How is Beijing implementing its new policy on the Tibetan world? Bruno cites three ways, one of intimidation and coercion of Tibet sympathizers. Bruno says “No Tibet-related issue is too trivial to draw the attention of China’s diplomats.” The second method is “to siphon off support for the Dalai Lama… by refusing to negotiate with and constantly vilifying the Tibetan leader, or by supporting anti-Dalai Lama political and religious factions.” Another weapon China uses is espionage. Bruno quotes an America diplomat in India, saying that “China’s anti-Tibetan espionage program in India is ‘one of the most aggressive efforts (of spycraft) since the Cold War.”
In this war of words, by its own estimation Beijing declared a victory of sorts. China’s nationalist daily Global Times announced in January 2016 that “the Dalai clique is falling apart.”
For sympathetic observers like Bruno, the outcome, though uncertain, is yet to be decided. In his detailed and honest survey of the fortunes of the exile Tibetans, he considers “Tibetans’ exile institutions are the wild cards of China’s Tibet project.”
Bruno hopes for a negotiated settlement of the issue of Tibet. “But if that does not happen, and the Dalai Lama departs before the modern Tibet question is answered, the Tibetan diaspora will need unprecedented unity to weather the storms that will follow.”
For all those concerned about Tibet and its culture, Blessings from Beijing is essential reading for its digging deep into the strengths and weaknesses of the exile Tibetans.