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Barbara Demick's 'Eat The Buddha' Profiles A Little-Known Tibetan Town


Reporter Barbara Demick is drawn to places where outsiders are largely forbidden. Her 2010 book "Nothing To Envy" was about six North Korean citizens. Her latest is about Tibet, which has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party since the 1950s. In "Eat The Buddha: Life And Death In A Tibetan Town," Demick profiles Ngaba (ph), a town in China's sprawling Sichuan Province. It's a part of Tibet you don't hear about, one with a reputation for resisting Beijing's rule and for self-immolation.

Barbara Demick says the story begins in 1958.

BARBARA DEMICK: 1958 is the year that the Chinese Communists first enacted what they called democratic reforms. They herded everybody into communes. They took away their animals. They took away their cooking supplies and started what would really be decades of forced starvation. Tibetans just use the term '58 the way we do 911. It's shorthand for the disaster. It was a long time ago, but there's never been an apology. And those memories really fuel a lot of the current unhappiness.

FADEL: And why did you pick this part of Tibet, Ngaba?

DEMICK: I like to work with microcosms, so I was looking for a Tibetan town. And it was why not this one? This town became really infamous starting in 2009, when - which was the beginning of a wave of self-immolations. It was like, how is it that this ordinary, nondescript town became, really, the center of the Tibetan resistance, really the most sensitive, difficult place in China?

FADEL: You know, a lot of this book came to life through the people you chose to tell the story of Ngaba through, among them a near-sighted nomad who becomes a monk, a schoolgirl faced with the choice between family and money and a princess named Gonpo. Could you tell me about her, the princess?

DEMICK: The princess who's at the opening of my book was the daughter of the last king of Ngaba. This area had local rulers. And she was 7 years old in 1958, and she was kicked out of her palace. The whole family was evicted and driven away. And she had this terrible suffering. She's really the only person in her immediate family who survived. She eventually married a Chinese man. She speaks fluent Chinese, and she's really seen the whole deterioration of the relationship between Tibet and China. What's interesting about her - she's not, like, militantly anti-Chinese.

FADEL: Right.

DEMICK: She loves the language and the culture, and she considers herself a socialist. But I've tried to find people like her who are not - you know, they're not screaming about genocide exactly, but, you know, they know and they bear witness to what happened.

FADEL: You became the Beijing correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in 2007 at a time when the Chinese government was promising to improve its human rights record. What has changed, if anything, since that time, since 2007?

DEMICK: You know, China has just become much more militarized. And there's a, you know, a tendency for the Chinese government to see the enemy as within, something that I've been thinking about quite a bit in the last few days, watching what's happening in Portland, where you have a, you know, a national military deployed to control domestic unrest, if you want to call it unrest. I would call it peaceful protest. But a lot of that happened in China as well, and I really think it's what caused some of the problems.

In - starting in 2010, China's spending on domestic security outpaced its military spending on the external enemy, and they set up and expanded their paramilitary units. And, you know, talking to a lot of people in Ngaba, it was the presence of that armed police unit, who occupied a large base very close to the monastery and were always marching and drilling and seen as very provocative to the Tibetans, that really caused a lot of the problem. It didn't quell unrest; it caused the unrest. And so, you know, I do hope the Trump administration is aware of this. People like Peter Navarro...

FADEL: Top economic adviser to President Trump.

DEMICK: Yes, who's written several books on China, is certainly aware of the role that the paramilitary has played in China's internal and external affairs. So I see at a time that our administration is decrying China, doing some of the same things.

FADEL: You know, the other today moment that I heard echoes of as I read about re-education and indoctrination and forced assimilation was the Uighurs - you know, a minority population that has been in the news a lot recently for similar human rights abuses. Do you see tenors of what happened to Tibetans in the 1950s in what's happening to the Uighurs today?

DEMICK: Yes. I mean, the Uighur situation and the Tibetan situation are quite similar. It's the same issues. It's a large minority with a culture and religion and language that's very different from the Chinese and not being allowed to, you know, live their own lives and practice their own religion or speak their language. So they're in very similar situations.

And if you look at a map of China, you'll see that the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang, which is the area of the northwest where the Uighurs live, that's more than half the country. You know, it's kind of the weak underbelly of China because it's not completely under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. These people are not subdued. And this is where they're spending a lot of their money on security.

FADEL: Barbara Demick - her new book is called "Eat The Buddha" - thank you so much.

DEMICK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.