FPI Director of Democracy and Human Rights Ellen Bork reviews Tim Johnson's "Tragedy in Crimson"

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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 month.

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 predecessor.

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.

- Originally written for the Wall Street Journal

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