When the Olympic torch relay turned into a free-for-all between Tibetan protesters and pro-China demonstrators last month, Abrahm Lustgarten had a unique perspective on the conflict.
A writer who splits his time between New York and Eugene, Lustgarten spent four years traveling to China and Tibet researching the Qinghai-Tibet Railway—a 50-year plan to build the highest train line in the world and solidify Beijing's hold on the disputed region.
When the first trains rumbled across the Tibetan plateau in 2006, Lustgarten was on board to chronicle the changes Chinese policies have brought. While Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, calls for greater autonomy from his exile home in India, Lustgarten documented the vast erosion of Tibet's unique culture in the face of China's march toward modernity.
Lustgarten, who recently took a job as a reporter for the new nonprofit investigative journalism group ProPublica in New York, told WW about Chinese hate mail, "Free Tibet" bumper stickers and why he's torn over whether to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
His book, China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet, was published in March by Times Books.
WW: Were you surprised by the numbers of pro-Chinese demonstrators during the Olympic torch relay?
Abrahm Lustgarten: I wasn't. Chinese passion around the Olympics and China as a whole is totally underestimated, by Americans especially. I ran into small-scale expressions of that sentiment every single time the Tibetan issue came up with my Chinese sources.
Have you ever felt heat from that side?
I wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post ["What they're really fighting for in Tibet," March 23, 2008], and they put my email address at the bottom. I got like a thousand emails, and 85 percent of them were in horrible English from Chinese nationals. They were the worst hate mail I have ever received from any story.
Is it right for the West to boycott the Olympics?
I'm undecided. The Olympics are massively symbolic to the very definition of what China is as a country right now. Any threat to that is taken as a sort of a mortal threat and a very deep personal offense. It's an opportunity that Tibetans, if they want to further their cause, have to seize on. They may end up just abused and thrown in jail, but they sort of have to. But whether it's appropriate for outsiders to take up Tibet's cause is very, very complicated.
What about all those "Free Tibet" bumper stickers?
I want to know from those people what they learned and who they learned it from. There's this totally romanticized view of what Tibet is and what Tibetans are. It's not to say that I don't think the culture is amazing and worth saving. But there's a real oversimplification.
Any trouble with the authorities while reporting in China?
I always expected problems, but I never had any direct confrontations. There were times when I was suspicious that people had been in my hotel room. Stuff displaced. I would stick things right in front of the door and it would be moved.
Did you become close with your sources?
My best Tibetan friend was the man I call "Kalden" in the book. There's an episode at the end where he is really reflecting—kind of forced by me, maybe even inappropriately, to reflect a little bit on his situation. And there is this incredibly emotionally poignant moment, and he was just deeply uncomfortable. And I felt really bad for pushing him there.
How do you prove there's cultural genocide in Tibet?
It's in the number of new businesses and new jobs, and the scarcity of Tibetans in those jobs. It's the widening gap between rich and poor. It's the phasing out of Tibetan language from schools. It's interviews with Tibetan friends about how they're losing touch with their own culture. You can call it genocide or you can call it globalization; it's a fine line at some point.
Is Tibet already lost?
That's the question I get most often. I don't think so. It's very, very seriously threatened. The train is a bit of a turning point toward the negative and what's happened in the two years since it opened. The Olympics, and the opportunity to bring attention to their political aspirations and their cause, is the next big turning point.