Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama conquered the world and lost the battle with China, by Tim Johnson, Nation Books, $26.99, 333 pages

Last week, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, announced his intention to step down as the political figurehead of the Tibetan government in exile. It was time, said the 76-year-old monk, now in his 14th reincarnation according to Tibetan beliefs, to pass on the baton of political leadership to an elected, earthly successor.

The efforts of the Dalai Lama, considered a god-king by many Tibetans, to steer the succession process while he is still alive raises an odd dichotomy. While an atheistic Communist party wants to stick to a reincarnation tradition it hopes to control, Tibet’s holiest leader is trying to bring the cause of Tibetan autonomy back down to earth.

Tradition dictates that only after he dies would Tibetan priests search for his reincarnation. The boy – or possibly girl – they found would be groomed to take over as most revered leader. But that would take time. The Dalai Lama wants to speed the process by conferring political legitimacy upon a democratic leader who can galvanise the Tibetans’ cause now.

The Dalai Lama, who has pursued a non-violent agenda in pursuit of more autonomy, not independence, may also fear a radicalisation of the movement. Without clear leadership, Tibetan youth, some disenchanted with what they see as the Dalai Lama’s timid stance, may revolt. Some did precisely that in 2008, attacking Han Chinese and bringing down the full force of Beijing’s security apparatus. Given the power of the state and its determination to keep intact the vast area of Tibet – known in Chinese as Xizang, or “western treasure house” – any new uprising is also like to be violently crushed.

Tim Johnson’s book has the virtue of great timing, though it is a somewhat unsatisfying account. Tragedy in Crimson is overly picaresque in structure, at times more diary or travelogue than well thought-out analysis. It could also have done with more historical context, allowing the reader better to judge Beijing’s claim to have lorded over Tibet for centuries and to have rescued it, in 1949, from what it called its feudalistic past.

Nevertheless, Johnson does cast considerable light on what is at stake. In Dharamsala, the Indian hill station home of Tibet’s government in exile, he traces the Dalai Lama’s somewhat unsuccessful attempts to instil a more democratic tradition, a process that culminated this month with his formal withdrawal from politics.

But Johnson, a correspondent in China for six years with the McClatchy group, finds the Tibetan culture resistant to democracy. The Dalai Lama’s own status as a “megawatt global figure” means that few, if any, Tibetan exiles have emerged as genuine political leaders. The author’s all-too-obvious reverence for a man famously described by one Chinese official as a “wolf wrapped in robes” does not undermine the book’s generally bleak thesis. Quite to the contrary, Johnson’s emphasis on the centrality of the Dalai Lama to the Tibetan cause means that he fears for Tibet’s future all the more once its principle figurehead is gone.

The fate he predicts for Tibet is that of Inner Mongolia. The ethnic and cultural distinctions of Mongolians living in China have been all-but erased by an influx of Han Chinese and the steamrollering power of China’s economic machine. When the Communists took power in 1949, there were five Mongols for every one Han Chinese in Inner Mongolia. By the time of the most recent census in 2000, Han Chinese outnumbered Mongolians 4.6 to 1. Knowledge of the Mongolian language is dying as parents reluctantly teach their children Mandarin to brighten their prospects. “Inner Mongolia may represent a harbinger of what could occur in Tibet, in terms of not only demographic composition but also maintaining language and cultural identity,” he writes.

Tibet may be joining the other minorities in losing its separate identity. It came in for particularly brutal treatment during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution when its spiritual way of life was a target for the Red Guards’ attack on the “four olds” of old customs, culture, habits and ideas. Cultural knowledge is fading. Johnson even finds a Tibetan either too cut off or too fearful to admit he has ever heard of the Dalai Lama.

That leaves Tibet clinging to what Johnson calls the “Hail Mary” strategy, a faith that Tibetan culture can outlast China’s Communist party. One expert points hopefully to the case of East Timor, which seized independence from Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in 1998. But Johnson has spent six years watching the awesome progress of the Chinese economy and the adaptability of the Communist party. He is not holding his breath.

The writer is the FT’s Asia editor

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