As recent events in Egypt have shown, governments that one day appear invincible may the next lie in tatters. And if the 14th Dalai Lama were a betting man, he’d probably put his money on China being the next strong power to fall. He said as much to Johnson in a meeting near the end of the journalist’s tenure (from 2003 to 2009) as Beijing bureau chief for the U.S. McClatchy newspaper chain. In fact, at age 75, the exiled Tibetan leader thinks he may even outlive the Chinese Communist party—in his present incarnation, no less.
Though his sympathies are clearly with Tibet, Johnson mulls the Dalai Lama’s optimism with sincere doubt. He laments the sapping of Lhasa’s soul by the boom of Chinese commerce, but can’t help marvelling at the railway partly responsible for it—China’s Sky Train, completed in 2006, which carries passengers from Beijing to Lhasa across hundreds of miles of permafrost from 13,000 feet above. Johnson also knows first-hand about China’s fierce possessiveness of Tibet—Chinese diplomats met with McClatchy’s CEO to inquire about this very book, a signal to the writer that he was being watched.
Tibetans, meanwhile, have adopted what Johnson calls a “Hail Mary” strategy. Though some younger activists are frustrated with the Dalai Lama’s willingness to settle for Tibetan autonomy rather than independence, reverence for him prevails, impeding any meaningful dissent. For its part, the West has embraced the Dalai Lama—bestowing on him a Nobel Peace Prize—but no country recognizes his government in exile. Johnson speculates that Tibet will be further swallowed up by China when the popular Dalai Lama dies, a nearing eventuality. And what lies in the balance isn’t so much the beacon of enlightenment the humble Himalayan country is often built up to be, but a rich, nomadic culture that subsists peacefully on Tibet’s rolling grasslands.