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Blessings from Beijing: Inside China's Soft-Power War on Tibet

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Sometime in October 2011 my wife and I unexpectedly ran into the Dalai Lama in San Diego. It wasn’t that we didn’t expect to see him—we were there that day to hear him speak in front of thousands at San Diego State University—but we didn’t expect to encounter him, with his small entourage, out in front of the Viejas Arena trying to find his way in. Somehow, in all the hustle, we seemed to be the only ones who noticed him, and naturally we were too flabbergasted to know what to do. He also looked pained to be cornered by us. My wife wanted to shake his hand, which he politely refused, but he did allow us to take a picture of him before we pointed out the door (which he had obviously already seen) and he left.

We learned later the reason why he didn’t want to shake my wife’s hand. A few months later he revealed that he believed the Chinese had sent women assassins to poison him, possibly while trying to shake his hand. The assassins were said to be Tibetans, but I can see why he would want to play it safe.

Greg Bruno cites this incident in his book Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet. He uses it in the book, and his publisher uses it on the back of the dustjacket, as an example of the “soft-power war” he says China is waging on Tibet. I don’t quite know what’s “soft-power” about an assassination attempt—I’d say killing the leader of the Tibetan people would be a hard power play myself—but it doesn’t really matter. Despite the prominence this incident is given in advertising, Bruno doesn’t have any information about it that he didn’t read in the newspaper.

In reality, Bruno’s book isn’t about “China’s Soft-Power War.” Bruno doesn’t have the access either to Chinese diplomats and politicians or the Tibetan community to write about China’s actions against Tibet. The closest he gets to writing about the topic is the little he gleaned about China’s pressuring Nepal to put the Tibetans in line. In reality, this is a book (which seems to grow out of various articles Bruno has written) about the Tibetan diaspora, and how the current generation of Tibetans is adjusting to its situation in the world. For example, Bruno can’t exactly claim that substance abuse problems among Tibetans in India is part of a “soft-power war” on Tibet, but he devotes an entire chapter to that. Other chapters revolve around such things as Tibetans’ inability to own land in India, the question of Tibetans claiming citizenship in their host countries, and whether or not young Tibetans will retain their heritage in New York. They’re interesting topics, but many of the book’s chapters barely mention China.

Each chapter revolves around some theme in the Tibetan exile community. It opens with some contact that Bruno had with a Tibetan exile regarding a challenge facing the Tibetan community—often an encounter as superficial as my own meeting with the Dalai Lama—and then fleshes the matter out largely using data from published sources. Unfortunately Bruno doesn’t know either Chinese or Tibetan and doesn’t have much access to the Tibetan leadership. He also was based in places like the United Arab Emirates, not known for its Tibetan population, during much of the time he was writing the book. He has no choice but to rely on other people’s work. Much of the time I found myself wishing I was reading Bruno’s sources instead of his book.

Bruno’s book turns out to be quite biased. Naturally he doesn’t like China and makes that clear. But he also attacks Tibetan factions that don’t back the Dalai Lama, sometimes cruelly. What struck me as particularly nasty was how he dealt with the monks at Serpom Thoesam Norling Monastery. The monks at this monastery broke with the Dalai Lama over his position in the Dorje Sugden controversy. Bruno makes seem like they worship some bloodthirsty deity, but naturally I’m sure the truth is more complex than that. Unannounced, and not telling them he’s a journalist, Bruno shows up at the monastery, where he claims they pray for the death of the Dalai Lama. He makes jabs at the monk he meets there, insulting both his grasp of English and the condition of his teeth. (As a man with bad teeth myself, I like to think it’s not a moral failing.) The monk does in fact express frustration with the policies of the Dalai Lama, and says that things won’t get better until after he dies. But what else can a frustrated person say about a world leader who holds office for life? I’ve heard devout Catholics say similar things about the Pope, but it’s not the same as a prayer for death. This chapter—entitled “Beady Eyes and a Dead Lama”—seems not only mean but a severe lapse in journalistic ethics. Bruno goes to this fellow’s house (a man who, incidentally, is an ordinary monk, not a public figure), catches him off-guard, doesn’t let him know he’s talking on the record, barely understands him (even though it’s the monk who makes the effort to speak Bruno’s language, not the other way around), and insults the man’s looks. Meanwhile, Bruno doesn’t even bother to ask if he can see the interior of the monastery’s temple. He spends an hour there, collects a little local color but doesn’t manage to gather any material that’s actually relevant to his argument, and then sets himself up an expert over the place. What really rubs me the wrong way about this chapter is the way Bruno sits in judgement over one faction of an oppressed people in favor of another faction of that same people. That really seems like something the Tibetans need to figure out for themselves.

I am glad I read Bruno’s book. I didn't know much about the Tibetan diaspora, and I learned a number of things. I was particularly interested in the rifts within the Tibetan community itself. But Bruno gives the impression of someone on the outside gazing in, someone who really wants to be an authority but doesn’t quite know how to do that. If I knew of a better book on the subject I would recommend it instead. ( )
  marc_beherec | Jun 24, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Greg Bruno attempts to illuminate the methods China is using to disrupt, divide, and breakdown Tibet and its people. The book often refers to Mao's invasion as well as the 2008 Olympics. Issues relating to China's "soft power war" are definitely worth writing about; however, Bruno makes no secret of his bias and affiliation toward the Tibetan religion and culture. Instead of charging the reader up, the whole book reads as if your friend is chatting with you over coffee about an issue far away.

Bruno flirted with the feudalism of the Tibetans, but described his stance on a personal narrative. Objectively, China does enforce its control and power over the Tibetan state as any nation does to their land. This review is not to demonize Tibetans or defend China, but rather to clarify the position of the book.

I gave it 3 stars because it was a good read. It was well written and with many important points to reflect upon. This is not an easy topic, and overall, Bruno did well. ( )
  jamesgwld | May 21, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Review: Blessings From Beijing by Greg C. Bruno.

This is a book I received from Early Reviewer’s list and I though it was well written, complex but interesting. I will admit I haven’t much knowledge of China’s political stance against Tibet that started in the late fifties. My review will probably be complex as the book however there were some issues by both party’s that I understood and followed. I have even searched on line to questions I had to fill in to be able to find some answers or just to follow-up on an issue I was curious about.

To bring the issue to a recent time as 1990’s to the present is intriguing. I can honestly say I didn’t know China still had control of Tibet and surrounding countries were clamping down on Tibetan refugees because they didn’t want any backlash from China. The Chinese political views on religion are a main issue that has been discussed from time to time and China will not let up on its rules set in Tibet. China has unjustly controlled power over some Tibetan refugee’s to return to Tibet from many years of their exile from Tibet. With many Tibetan’s settling in some countries still don’t have the freedom to do what they want. What I read I believe the Tibetans will never have a home back in Tibet. The refugee’s settlements in the forest and jungle of India are being controlled by China from afar. The people of Tibet are scattered throughout the world and China has spies in every Tibetan community.

However, Tibetan people also have spies in China. Both parties are at fault in different ways and China is believed to be stronger. There are two issues that were hard for me to believe. The comment the author made about the leader Dalai Lama of Tibet (also exiled for years) going to Washington D.C. in the United States and it was stated that the former President of the United States would not invite Tibet’s leader to the White House and did not set up a meeting anywhere else. I am not a political person but that issue bothers me because I can’t perceive the US President doing that. The second issue brought up in the book was about Pope Francis shunning the leader of Tibet. It’s hard to accept this comment because of my religious belief. If I’m not accurate about what I read I’ll apologies now, I don’t want to offend anyone…

Greg Bruno did a great job with the language, religion, cultural practices and the history. So many Tibetans exiled years ago that some are worried that Tibet will become extinct but others have hope and aspirations. It all depends on how China plays its cards… ( )
1 vote Juan-banjo | May 7, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Summary: An exploration of how China is using "soft power" to undermine the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee community he represents.

Before reading this book, I must confess I was unaware of the history of the Tibetan refugee community of which the fourteenth Dalai Lama is the chief representative, if no longer political head. After the civil war during which Mao came to power forming the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Dalai Lama affirmed the sovereignty of China in return for a grant of autonomy for Tibet. Nevertheless, the PRC asserted increasing control, and eventually the Dalai Lama repudiated the agreement affirming the PRC's sovereignty and went into exile in 1959, along with many of his people who fled to Nepal, India, and in some cases Western countries. While continuing to function as spiritual head, the Dalai Lama stepped down from leadership of the Central Tibetan Administration in 2011.

Particularly since 1990, China has both tightened its control over Tibet, quashing unrest in 2008 and a rash of self-immolations protesting its control. Simultaneously, it has pursued a series of "soft power" measures to undermine the Tibetan refugee community, the Central Tibetan Administration, and the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who represent an independent Tibetan government in exile. This book is a study of these soft power measures, the Tibetan exile community, and the prospects for its future. The title is drawn from a press conference in which the Dalai Lama made this statement:

"Totalitarian regimes sort of pressure everywhere, even in the United States....I think India and Nepal are receiving some special blessing from Peking, that's quite clear....And the situation in Nepal, it'a not very settled, not very stable. There are a lot of problems. So Chinese pressure, Chinese Communist pressure, is more effective."

Since 1997, Greg C. Bruno has been traveling to Tibetan refugee settlements in Nepal and India and interviewing refugees, including the Dalai Lama, and he has chronicled as a journalist, the soft power pressure he has witnessed first hand. Even in Dharamsala, the center of the Tibetan refugee community and home of the Dalai Lama, the primary media outlets in nearby China broadcast incessant Communist Party propaganda. Pro-Tibetan actions even in London and the U.S. are met with vigorous PRC pressure and threats. At the same time, efforts of Tibetans to flee the country have been increasingly thwarted and the using of funding and cross border policing efforts have made it increasingly possible to escape into bordering Nepal. Refugee communities have been infiltrated with informers and spies. Chinese efforts have exacerbated religious differences among Tibetan sects, further undermining the Dalai Lama's spiritual authority and raising increasing questions about his successor, the next reincarnation.

Bruno also gives us a glimpse of the refugee community through his friendship with aging "Pala" who established on the streets of McLeod Gang the "Walmart of Little Lhasa." Pala had been his host on early trips to Dharamsala and taught him rudiments of the language. By tracing the life of his family, the children who migrated to European and American Tibetan communities, and the son who remained behind, trying to find purpose in maintaining a trade he had little heart for, we see a snapshot of refugee life--new beginnings, further diaspora, and stalled hopes. He explores the complicated existence of Tibetans as a refugee community within India and the question of whether to naturalize if possible. He helps us understand, through the reports of a refugee, why a young man with a future in Tibet would self-immolate in protest against Chinese rule.

Running through all of this is the question of what will happen with the passing of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. What will China do? What is the future of the Tibetan community in exile? Can it sustain its protest against China? One thing the author makes clear is that as long as this community coheres, it will represent a threat to China, and will continue to enjoy China's "blessings."

Both the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assert the right of a people to self-determination, and three resolutions by the UN General Assembly in 1959, 1961, and 1965 upheld these rights for the Tibetan people. Western support as well as the initial welcome of the Indian government has sustained this exile community. China's increasing global reach raises the question of whether the Tibetan people inside and outside of China will be forgotten or marginalized. The Dalai Lama has probably done all and more than all that one person can do to raise the profile and case for self-determination of Tibetans.

What Bruno's book makes clear is that if this case is to have a future, it will depend both on the Tibetan refugee community and advocacy from the global community. Bruno also helps us appreciate that Tibet consists of a distinctive people with its own language, religion, cultural practices, and history. Some of us are deeply disturbed with the danger of the extinction of any living species. How much more should we care about the extinction or assimilation of a people? Bruno helps us understand the hopes and aspirations of this people, and as well as what could be lost if China has its way.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. ( )
  BobonBooks | May 3, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I got Blessings from Beijing from LibraryThing, in part because I was part of the Free Tibet movement in the 1980s and 1990s. I was pleased that the author was willing to discuss the different cultural groups that fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion and the difficulty of going from temporary refugees to permanant residents surrounded by another culture. I wish the writing were not so boring, as the information itself is so fascinating. ( )
  Bidwell-Glaze | Apr 30, 2018 |
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