Ngaba, a frontier town on the eastern Tibetan plateau, has become the “undisputed world capital of self-immolations”. Every few months, a monk, a nun, a farmworker, or a high school student will walk usually to the Kirti monastery downtown, shout slogans for freedom from Chinese rule, and proceed to burn themselves alive. The suicides are startling, recalling the shocking 1963 photograph of a monk setting himself ablaze in Saigon, or years later, the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in 2010 sparked off the Arab spring. But the deaths in Ngaba have neither toppled a regime nor triggered much international outrage. China calls the self-immolators “terrorists” and makes a point of arresting even the witnesses who try to snuff out the flames.
In Eat the Buddha, esteemed journalist Barbara Demick tries to ascertain why more than 40 people have set themselves on fire in Ngaba since 2009. She lays out the town’s history of rebellions: the local Tibetan soldiers who first resisted the communists during the Long March in 1935, the countless men and women who have died in protests and uprisings over the years. Many of today’s self-immolators are descendants of the same soldiers and dissenters. Having steeped themselves in the Dalai Lama’s message of peace, the protesters turn the violence inward.
The three trips that Demick made to Ngaba had to be surreptitious. The town has been practically cordoned off in the last decade, with the number of soldiers exceeding the local population. Foreigners are stopped at checkpoints. Closed-circuit cameras watch over every inch of the main street. Markets and monasteries look like war zones.
But this book is unimpaired by these constraints. By following her characters’ fluctuating fortunes through the decades, Demick is able to convey the texture of everyday life in the town. We watch traders defying Mao to become successful businessmen. Monks prank Communist party cadres to dodge restrictions on their monasteries. A bunker where Tibetan rebels had once been massacred becomes a playground where children play hide-and-seek. Teenage girls grow up watching agitprop war movies, mumbling Tibetan prayers each time Chinese soldiers are killed on screen. These seemingly minor details don’t just propel the narrative forward: they reveal a pointillist portrait. Demick is at once an intrepid reporter and scrupulous historian; she tells the story of Ngaba, however, like a novelist.
Demick’s previous book, Nothing to Envy, explored life in North Korea, and she finds the level of fear among Tibetans “comparable”. Tibetans are ordered to display Chinese flags, forced to attend propaganda lessons. They are routinely passed over for jobs and barred from travelling freely both inland and abroad. The few Tibetans who see the appeal of China’s expanding economy find the attempts to malign the Dalai Lama unbearable. Residents of Ngaba are arrested even for possessing a photograph of their spiritual leader. Chinese authorities have even co-opted another Buddhist sect to discredit the world’s most famous Tibetan. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Demick notes that restrictions on the community are likely to intensify. Just last month, president Xi Jinping called for indoctrination efforts in Tibet’s schools to be stepped up. “Seeds of loving China,” he said, must be planted among young Tibetans.
• Eat the Buddha by Barbara Demick is published by Granta. To buy a copy for go to guardianbookshop.com.