This remarkable book offers a unique insight into Tibet's plight, allowing the reader to understand what it is like for its people to be tossed about in a political storm they neither want nor understand.
Demick's title references the ravenous Maoist cadres who, during 1934's Long March, ate the flour and sugar Buddhas made by Tibetans as votive offerings — symbolic of the cultural cataclysm to come.
She made three trips to Ngaba, where the military presence reminded her of wartime Baghdad and the level of fear of North Korea. But the meat of the book is an oral history of the lives of local people under Chinese occupation, stitched together from exhaustive interviews with Tibetans living in exile. She interweaves their memories into a novelistic narrative, using Ngaba as a window on to the broader history of modern Tibet.
In recent years, Ngaba has been tragically celebrated for another distinction: it is the capital of self-immolation, where more Tibetans have chosen an agonising death in protest at Chinese rule than anywhere else. It was this that attracted Demick and her signature in-depth reporting – honed in earlier books such as Nothing to Envy, her account of life in famine-riven North Korea. That, too, focused on the story of a community of people who were bound together over generations by a life-changing experience. The approach allows her to check individual accounts and memories against each other, and the result is a vivid, exhaustively researched ground-level view of the impact of history on people’s lives.
These days, as Demick explains, Beijing points to the money that it has poured into Tibet and complains that the locals do not show more gratitude for Chinese largesse. Those espousing the economistic view have little understanding of the real and sensitive issue of ethnic diversity in China; Tibetans are tolerated when they are wearing exotic costumes and folk dancing on a New Year television special but deemed troublesome when they demand political autonomy or, conversely, point out that they have no presence at the top level of China’s government. Now the Xi administration is tightening up control on all those deemed Chinese. The likelihood that it will provide more freedom to Tibet at the same time as it is restricting freedom in Hong Kong is close to zero. Demick’s account is fair-minded, making clear that some Tibetans have indeed benefited from economic progress in the region. However, the overall tone of her book is melancholic. Eat the Buddha is a beautifully written study of a people whose way of life has been eroded over the years and seems unlikely ever to be restored.
In their own way, the self-immolations have also been a challenge to the Dalai Lama and his doctrine of non-violence. Demick ends her book with a wistful reflection on how he has been losing his battle to keep the Tibetan cause alive. Years of negotiation with Beijing about his return have gone nowhere. His “middle way” concept for autonomy within China is essentially the “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong that Beijing has just torn up. And when he eventually dies, the obscure succession process is likely to be manipulated by China so that there are two claimants to be the next Dalai Lama — one nominated from Dharamsala, one by Beijing.