Those who self-immolate today are the grandchildren of those who participated in the early uprisings, Demick writes. Having imbibed the Dalai Lama’s teachings of nonviolence, they can only bear to hurt themselves. They bear the scars of the “Democratic Reforms”in eastern Tibet that began in 1958. “Tibetans of this generation refer to this period simply as ngabgay — ’58. Like 9/11, it is shorthand for a catastrophe so overwhelming that words cannot express it, only the number,” Demick writes. “Some will call it dhulok, a word that roughly translates as the ‘collapse of time,’ or, hauntingly, ‘when the sky and earth changed places.’”
Tibetans were forced into cooperative living, stripped of their herds and land. Their yaks — sources of their food, clothing and light (candles were made from yak fat) — were seized and slaughtered, recalling the American government’s devastating policy of culling the Lakota’s bison. Daylong public “struggle sessions” were instituted — rituals of public humiliation in which those accused of perceived infractions were forced to admit to crimes and submit to verbal and physical abuse — with children forced to observe and cheer along. Some 20 percent of the population was arrested and held in prisons that were often only pits in the ground filled with hundreds of people. An estimated 300,000 Tibetans died.
Demick covers an awe-inspiring breadth of history — from the heyday of the Tibetan empire, which could compete with those of the Turks and Arabs, to the present day, as the movement for Tibetan independence has faltered and transformed into an effort at cultural and spiritual survival. She charts the creative rebellions of recent years, the efforts at revitalizing the language and traditions, Tibetans’ attachment to the Dalai Lama (and their criticisms). Above all, Demick wants to give room for contemporary Tibetans to testify to their desires. If the spectacular horror of the self-immolations first attracted her interest, she finds, at least among her sources, demands that sound surprisingly modest. They want only the rights enjoyed by the Han Chinese, she writes — to travel, hold a passport, to study their own language, to educate their children abroad if they wish.
Her forecast is pessimistic. Only in North Korea has she witnessed such smothering surveillance and high levels of fear, she writes, accelerated by technological developments like a social credit system in development that will prevent “untrustworthy” citizens from employment, buying plane tickets and using credit cards.
In Ngaba, the last Tibetan-language school — the last one in all of China — has switched to teaching primarily in Chinese. Meanwhile, across the country, Demick notices the same red billboards springing up, proclaiming the latest propaganda: “TOGETHER WE WILL BUILD A BEAUTIFUL HOME. BEND LOW. LISTEN TO WHAT PEOPLE SAY.”