A Prison Called Tibet: How China Controls Its Restive Regions

In the early twentieth century, during a period when Tibet was effectively self-governed, it was known as “the hermit kingdom.” This moniker reflected the general remoteness of the place, reinforced by the altitude of its habitable plateaus, the forbidding mountain ranges (including the Himalayas) that hem Tibet in, and the supposedly insular character of its people, whose abiding wish, it was said, was to be left alone.

Read Book: Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town 

In more recent times, Tibet’s isolation has been shaped by altogether different forces, some of which have reduced it and some of which have heightened it. After the Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious from the Chinese Civil War, in 1949, among its earliest priorities was placing Tibet under Beijing’s control and integrating the mountainous region into the country. This was achieved at gunpoint, after the senior CCP leader, Deng Xiaoping, and other commanders led thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops into Tibet to establish Chinese authority. Tibet’s traditional leaders bridled at the encroachment and at the violation of Beijing’s earlier promises of autonomy, and in 1959, the most important of them, the Buddhist monk known as the Dalai Lama, fled overland into exile in India, where he has remained ever since. Since then, in its approach to Tibet, China has oscillated between periods of oppression and stretches of relative tolerance. But the forced marriage has never been a happy or stable one. 

By the early years of this century, Beijing was working hard to roll out impressive modern infrastructure in Tibet, including rail lines that passed over large stretches of delicate permafrost at three miles of elevation. The trains they carried were meant to facilitate a mass migration to Tibet of members of the Han Chinese majority from elsewhere in the country, reflecting the CCP’s belief that a Tibet whose cities and towns were populated in large part by non-Tibetans would be easier to control. 

At the same time, the CCP had begun making it nearly impossible for international journalists and independent researchers to freely enter the territory. Even ordinary foreign tourists required special permits. This, one could only surmise, was meant to conceal an accelerating project to bring the area more firmly to heel and impose on it political conformity and obedience—or “modernization” and “harmony,” in the official language of Beijing—whether the Tibetans liked it or not.

Many did not like it one bit. In 2008, a wave of major protests broke out in the buildup to the 50th anniversary of the young Dalai Lama’s flight. The protests reflected not just anger over Chinese efforts to dilute local culture and weaken the hold of Tibetan Buddhism but also fears that the revered Dalai Lama would die in exile and Beijing would seek outright control of the religion by naming his successor. Despite the CCP’s efforts to tamp down dissent in Tibet, the unrest caught Beijing by surprise and spread with remarkable speed. Soon, large portions of neighboring Sichuan Province were also engulfed by demonstrations, led by saffron-robed monks and nuns who filed out of their monasteries to launch sit-down protests in the center of the region’s cities and towns. In perhaps the most radical form of nonviolent protest imaginable, others performed spectacular acts of self-immolation, lighting themselves on fire in public squares. 

At the time, I was a China-based foreign correspondent for The New York Times. As I watched the uprising spread, I did everything I could to get to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, where the unrest had started. I flew to Chengdu, the booming capital of Sichuan, and hired a car with the idea of driving northwest into heavily Tibetan areas. From the reports of other colleagues, I knew this wouldn’t be simple. Chinese police had set up checkpoints on the major highways leading into Sichuan’s Tibetan heartland and were turning foreign reporters back. For one long night, I rode with a Chinese colleague and my driver. We passed through a few roadblocks as I slumped in the back seat, hiding my face by pretending to be asleep and bundled up against the cold. 

The forced marriage between Tibet and China has never been a happy or stable one.

But it soon became clear that it would only be a matter of time before we would get stopped or arrested, so we diverted to circuitous and mountainous secondary roads, only to discover that such routes would take immeasurably longer to traverse. We finally turned back after learning that authorities had detained a few foreign reporters who had found their way through the lockdown, making it clear how unlikely it would be for us to gain access to any place where the protests or self-immolations were occurring. Elsewhere, I was able to collect plenty of accounts of Tibetan disaffection and disgruntlement toward the Chinese government. But there was no denying that Beijing had succeeded in keeping people like me away from the frontlines.

Read Book: Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town 

Memories of this struggle for access came flooding back to me as I read Barbara Demick’s recent book, Eat the Buddha. (The title refers to desperately hungry Red Army troops in Tibet who, during the civil war, sometimes looted Buddhist monasteries and ate religious statues made of flour and butter.) More than any other non-Chinese journalist of this generation, Demick has managed to overcome Beijing’s restrictions and penetrate the Tibetan world, to linger in it and to bring its people vividly to life on the page. Demick has made a special vocation of such feats, including as chronicled in her 2009 book, Nothing to Envy, one of the most deeply reported studies of North Korea, a place even more closely guarded and closed off to foreigners than Tibet.

As resourceful and inspired as her reporting is, her book’s overall message is a quietly dispiriting one: because of China’s size, wealth, and power, and the state of interdependence that prevails between it and the United States, there is little the outside world can do to halt Beijing’s deliberate and systematic erosion of its territory’s distinctive cultures and religious traditions, despite their ancient roots and long records of autonomous rule that predates modern China. In Demick’s view, Buddhist Tibet is destined to be marched toward an imposed assimilation with the largely atheistic ethnic Han majority—much as Xinjiang is experiencing: Xinjiang borders Tibet to the north and is currently in the news owing to evidence that the CCP is using concentration camps and forced labor to bring the Muslim Uyghur population there to heel.


Long after the smoke had cleared from the 2008 protests in Tibet and Sichuan, Demick made three reporting forays into Ngaba, a county in Sichuan whose population has traditionally been dominated by ethnic Tibetans and where Beijing’s heavy hand is visible in the ubiquitous police presence on the streets and the army garrisons guarding towns. To avoid scrutiny, she adopted the style of a certain kind of plucky Western traveler, deliberately eschewing the look of a seasoned correspondent. “I didn’t want to wear a ridiculous disguise like [the] nineteenth-century explorers [who traveled to Tibet], but I did buy a floppy hat with polka dots and one of those pollution masks so common in Asia,” she writes. “I wore long, dusty coats and flat lace-up shoes. The fact that it was frequently raining allowed me to add an umbrella to hide behind.” This got her past roadblocks and other snares the authorities had set up to keep out foreign reporters. Many journalists consider proficiency in Chinese a prerequisite for successful reporting from China, but Demick turned her limited command of Mandarin to her advantage, often staying silent or playing uncomprehending when vehicles she rode in were stopped for police checks. 

Ngaba’s unhappy contemporary life under Beijing’s thumb and its long history of run-ins with China’s Marxist-Leninist authorities place it at the center of Demick’s narrative: it is a town with a single stoplight that became “the world capital of self-immolations,” she writes. Most of the people from Ngaba she interviewed, however, had already left. Some had gone to less heavily policed parts of Sichuan; others had fled into exile, mostly to the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, a kind of unofficial capital of ethnic Tibet, which hosts the Dalai Lama and many thousands of other Tibetan exiles, along with an elaborate quasi-governmental bureaucracy. 

In a book that abounds with striking characters, two are particularly vivid, and they both ended up in Dharamsala. The first is a woman named Gonpo, the daughter of a Tibetan king who gradually fell afoul of Beijing during the radical ideological warfare and political tumult of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Her father acquiesced in China’s efforts to enforce its writ throughout western Sichuan, but he quietly bristled and eventually committed suicide by jumping off a bridge after his wife disappeared under suspicious circumstances. 

A Tibetan Buddhist monk in China’s Sichuan Province, October 2015

A Tibetan Buddhist monk in China’s Sichuan Province, October 2015
Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Gonpo, then in high school, went into internal exile in Xinjiang. There, the former Tibetan princess milked cows and worked the fields. She eventually met and married a man from China’s ethnic Han majority and went on to work for the government for several years in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, winning commendations for her performance. 

Read Book: Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town 

In 1988, a desire to rediscover Tibetan culture and history led Gonpo to take a pilgrimage with her young daughter to Dharamsala, leaving her husband behind temporarily, or so she thought. While she was away, the CCP carried out a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, resulting in an abrupt shift in the political climate in China. Suddenly, a country that had spent the past decade opening itself up to the world turned inward-looking, and people with foreign ties were treated with suspicion. 

Gonpo concluded that it was safer for her to stay in India, where she began putting her language skills to use for the Tibetan government in exile, translating its constitution and election law into Chinese at the request of the Dalai Lama. She eventually served in the exile movement’s legislature, as well. In Demick’s nuanced portrait, a woman who would seem to have many reasons for bitterness—having been forced out of her country and perhaps permanently separated from her family—instead embodies the complexity of the Tibetan dilemma. Gonpo is remarkably free of anti-Chinese passions and even admires much of what China has accomplished. Indeed, as Demick notes, in her willfully frugal ways, Gonpo is more of a socialist in lifestyle than most Chinese. “I usually try not to talk about the past,” Gonpo tells Demick. “It makes me sad.” Vocal activists who resist Chinese encroachments on Tibetan life represent a small minority. Many Tibetans can be assumed to quietly harbor deep resentment toward Beijing, but they stay silent for fear of punishment. The feeling one gets from Gonpo, among other characters Demick profiles, is of something quieter still: a stoic resignation.


Many Tibetans, however, have risked everything by more forcefully confronting Chinese authorities. One such character who resonates powerfully in Demick’s book is a man named Tsegyam, who also works for the Dalai Lama. As a young man in Ngaba, Tsegyam was a precocious student whose bookishness helped him land a relatively cushy job teaching students barely younger than him at the county’s first Tibetan-language middle school when it opened in 1983. Before long, he found himself on a path toward ever-bolder subversion. The teaching of Tibetan history was strictly banned in the school, so Tsegyam began slyly inserting readings about Buddhist philosophy and the origins of the Tibetan calendar. His Han Chinese supervisors didn’t understand the language and therefore were none the wiser. Demick writes that “he wanted to counter what students had been taught in Chinese schools—that Chinese was the language of literacy and that Tibetan was merely a folk language used by old people and monks.” 

Later, Tsegyam received the Dalai Lama’s 1962 memoir, My Land and My People, as a gift. The spiritual leader’s message that “Tibet is a distinct and ancient nation, which for many centuries enjoyed a relationship of mutual respect with China” reinforced many of Tsegyam’s own ideas. Emboldened, he eventually began taking bigger risks, such as making calligraphy posters with messages saying, “Free Tibet. Chinese out of Tibet. Bring back His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Under the cover of darkness, his students helped him hang them in prominent places.

As one might expect, this led to Tsegyam’s arrest in 1989, after authorities tortured one of his accomplices, forcing the man to confess and name others. In court, Tsegyam defiantly acknowledged his guilt and was sentenced to a year in prison—a mark of far more lenient times. Not long after his release, Tsegyam fled to India with a former student who became his wife. Settling in Dharamsala, his politics, fluency in Mandarin, and studiousness positioned him to become the personal secretary of the Dalai Lama, with whom he travels. His private passion, however, is writing essays that record and celebrate the culture and history of Ngaba. His hope seems to be that, with Lhasa under Beijing’s suffocating lockdown, just enough oxygen will remain in areas such as Ngaba to allow the culture to survive until another time, when perhaps an era of greater tolerance might return to China. 


Most of Demick’s characters are not politically involved at all; they are far more ordinary in their motivations. They were moved to leave Ngaba, and its region, as much for its economic backwardness as for its political repression. And some of them are frankly generous in their estimation of China’s overall progress.

Ultimately, however, this is a book about enclosure. The Tibetans who remain in Ngaba live in a garrison town surveilled by huge numbers of Chinese security forces. I saw other towns in similar situations when I visited western Sichuan as a tourist in 2012. Descending through high mountain passes, I would round a bend only to discover enormous, recently built military and police citadels in the distance below.

Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities have increasingly limited access to Tibet proper, even for ethnic Tibetans in Sichuan. And China has made it virtually impossible to travel legally from Tibet to India; the only way to escape is through a harrowing mountain trek, dodging police and bounty hunters. Passports have become difficult to obtain for Tibetans. And in other parts of China, they are treated as colorful outsiders, when not regarded with outright suspicion or resentment. 

In an attempt to lower tensions and ease an atmosphere of repression, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly renounced the idea of Tibet separating from China. This has won him no concessions from Beijing, however, which continues to hurl epithets at him and constantly warn of “splittism.” “No matter what the Dalai Lama says, the Chinese government never tires of denouncing him,” Demick writes. 

Their hatred of him appears boundless. We journalists used to joke that he was like Lord Voldemort—the antagonist of the Harry Potter series, he whose name cannot be mentioned and (in many parts of Tibet) whose image cannot be seen. . . . 
To purge the memory of the Dalai Lama, however, is impossible. Tibetans content themselves in places where the photograph is banned by worshipping instead Avalokitesvara, the thousand-armed bodhisattva of compassion whose likeness graces Tibetan monasteries. The Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of the Avalokitesvara, who stands in for the missing spiritual leader. 

A Tibetan in Lhasa tells her: “It doesn’t matter if we don’t have the photo. We know where he is.” 

The situation in Tibet may come to a head again before long. At 85 years old, the Dalai Lama is likely approaching the end of his life—and Beijing has a plan to prevent the rise of another figure of his stature. Rather than allowing his sect’s normal succession process to play out, the CCP has announced that it will oversee the naming of the next Dalai Lama. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that in taking this extraordinary step, Beijing will be lighting the long, slow fuse of the next Tibetan uprising.

Read Book: Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town 

HOWARD W. FRENCH is a Professor at the Columbia Journalism School and the author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.
SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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