Might Non-Violence be Entertaining? We Shall See

The first chapters of my new book, and other almost-to-the-weekend business

So, welcome to the first Friday post of my newsletter The Crucial Years. (And happy Labor Day weekend!) I’m very glad you’re here as part of this community; it’s grown faster than I expected, and I am grateful for all the good wishes.

For now, and for the next couple of weeks, this Friday post will be free like all the others. But beginning in October, Friday posts will only be for people who subscribe. That’s because I’m trying to raise some money for ThirdAct, our fledgling attempt at a progressive organizing group for “experienced Americans,” which is where my share of the subscription revenues will go for the next year. Don’t worry if you can’t afford the $60/year (or $6/month) fee—these aren’t really the most important or meaty posts, but more a slightly random miscellany at week’s end.

I’m going to dispense with even that this week, though, and just introduce the book that also comes your way with your subscription money. It’s the prequel/sequel to my book Radio Free Vermont, my first (intentional) fiction, which people seemed to enjoy. So over the pandemic, instead of learning to bake sourdough bread (the starter went bad), I finished this. I’m going to serialize it each Friday for you, in the hopes that that might work in a short-attention-span world (who has time for novels?) and because I always loved the idea that people read Dickens in weekly installments. This, I fear, isn’t Dickens, but at least it will be echo him in that sense.

I describe the book—which is about nonviolent movement building, more or less—in more detail in the Author’s Note below, but today want to offer a couple of what are sometimes called trigger warnings. Actual historical figures show up in these pages, entirely fictitiously; don’t be surprised—it’s not their fault. And these opening chapters have a certain amount about religion in them: Buddhism, Hinduism, and even, well, Jesus. It’s not a book about faith, but faith plays a part, mostly because it plays a large part in our world.

I am aware that many people reading this are inclined to disdain Christianity, at least as it’s often practiced. Me too—in fact, sometimes I’m amazed there are any sane people left in the fold, considering the self-appointed spokesmen who show up. (And as this book wears on, I will take many of those to task). But I was raised in a more benign tradition, and it’s been important to my life: the call to “love one’s neighbor” set me on a certain path early on. So, if there are things that trigger you a little, perhaps let them go for a little while.

And if you find yourself for some reason intrigued by that discussion, let me suggest someone here on Substack to turn to. Diana Butler Bass is the pre-eminent chronicler of a lucid, useful, humble church. She writes a newsletter called The Cottage, which I find a restful and refreshing place to visit regularly. She’s also written many great books: a person worth knowing.

At any rate, I hope you find something to pique your interest in this book—and perhaps as you read it you’ll think of others who might enjoy it. And if it’s not your mug of beer, not to worry—it’s only on Fridays. I’ll be back to the nonfictional here and now next week!

This book is for Sophie and Josh Crane, who are simply the best.

In the 20th century women and men—the suffragists, Gandhi, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and a million others whose names we don’t know—invented something new and important: the nonviolent social movement. They were drawing on earlier sources: Thoreau, the Sermon on the Mount. But it was, and still is, a fresh and dramatic innovation: a new way for the small and many to stand up to the mighty and the few. Though there isn’t much academic research (and, except in these pages, no nonviolent version of military schools like West Point), the academic research in recent years indicates that nonviolent campaigning is the most effective way of confronting power, far more likely to succeed than violent revolution. I’ve spent much of my life dabbling in it: helping build big nonviolent campaigns to stop pipelines or divest trillions of dollars from fossil fuel companies, and while we haven’t won the climate fight, we’ve definitely begun to shift the zeitgeist. When you fight, it’s amazing how often you win.

But it’s also amazing to me how little attention the world of entertainment usually pays to this kind of work. Instead, violence saturates our novels and movies. I realize that’s not a novel insight, and I don’t mean it as a moral judgment but simply as an observation. If you went to the paperback rack at the airport to find a book, you’d be hard-pressed not to think that America was under constant siege by demonic terrorists who are held back only by a veritable army of former CIA agents and Navy Seals who have gone entertainingly rogue in an effort to restrain the forces of chaos and terror. Ever since Tom Clancy, a certain kind of (very popular) novel has been obsessed with cataloguing the make and caliber of every weapon that these men use in pursuit of their rough justice. And not just the U.S.—there are literally more books about murders in Scandinavia than there are murders in Scandinavia.

Meanwhile, at the movies, week after week, new iterations of superhero serials appear. They are fantastically imaginative—the supers have long since moved past bending steel, and now employ a staggering range of powers both physical and psychic as they work out traumas from their past or confront injustices around them. Even the most creative of these sagas, however, invariably finish with a fight. Force, in the end, is how things are settled.

The problem with these entertainments is not so much what they include as what they don’t. Nonviolence is interesting, requiring wit and creativity in the place of firepower. But this terrain is largely underexplored by the popular artists creating our vision of the world. There are infinitely more nonviolent campaigns underway at any given moment than armed conflicts—from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo boycotts, from people sitting down in front of bulldozers to those jamming airports to rescue immigrants, from the streets of Milwaukee to the forests of Brazil, people are constantly conjuring new techniques to reverse the injustices and inequalities that mark our planet.

Yes, murder automatically raises the reader’s heart rate; carnage creates cinematic spectacle; it’s the easy way out for writers. But I can tell you from my own experience that there is enormous drama too in non-violence, as people risk their liberty (sometimes their lives) to stand up to injustice. As I hope this book demonstrates, the tools at their disposal are almost infinite: shooting people and blowing things up is a limited dramatic vocabulary compared to the methods nonviolent campaigners have figured out how to use. Gene Sharp, the defining historian of modern nonviolence, once published a three-volume series detailing the hundreds of techniques that have been employed, from ostracism to hunger strikes, from hauling down street signs to confuse invaders to wading-in at segregated pools. (I’m grateful to him, and to Eknath Easwaran, for some of the history herein). Nonviolent campaigners often employ art, and the best of them recognize the power of wit—these are weapons absent from the arsenals of conventional armies. And every year brings new inventions: the fact that Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for climate action spread around the planet in a matter of weeks reminds us how fresh this new idea still is, and how the most unlikely people (a Swedish schoolgirl who credits her autism for much of her brilliant focus) can suddenly exert tremendous leverage.

This book, I hope, is an entertainment. It is designed less to teach than to intrigue. I hope some of its readers will find themselves curious about the many similar stories unfolding in the real world around them, and I hope other writers will begin to explore this terrain more thoroughly. Nonviolence is available to all—this book, therefore, is designed to be read by all, from pleasantly sophisticated younger people, and pleasantly unsophisticated older people. Even cynics, or people so saddened by the press of bad news in our chaotic historical moment that they’ve nearly given up, may find in it a few reasons for hope. Or hope against hope.

Obviously I’ve taken liberties with the historical figures who pop up in this account—I’ve never met the Dalai Lama, for instance, and I am under no illusion that he needs my advice on how to carry out his work. I once shook hands with Pope Francis, though that doesn’t give me the right, I suppose, to make him a character. But since I’ve always admired them, it was fun to work them into this tale; I’ve included lots of names of famous people, from Chinese pop stars to American politicians, but none of their actions or words are real--this is fiction. And as in this story most of the work gets done by many deeply committed people we never hear of. I’d like to thank my many colleagues around the world in the fight for a just and working planet. I’ve learned a great deal from them, and am eager in these pages to pay a little tribute to their courage, good humor, and creativity. I’m also grateful to Vanessa Arcara, who is my wonderful colleague; to Athena Currier, who came up with the cover and format; to a great many friends and family who read this in various forms (my beloved wife Sue Halpern was as usual chief among them, and Sam Verhovek was especially thorough); and to Cory Doctorow and Kim Stanley Robinson for helping me figure out the unusual publishing scheme. Daniel Taylor provided more than a chunk of the inspiration.

Most of the time I sell books, because I enjoy eating and because I know that the library will let anyone who wants read it for free anyway—Indeed I have a ‘real book’ in the works at the moment. But given the subject matter, it seems right to offer this one up as a small (though at 150,000 words not I fear short) and somewhat misshapen gift to the world. Misshapen because I’m not really a novelist. This book is a prequel/sequel to a book of mine called Radio Free Vermont that a lot of people seemed to enjoy. But I called that one a fable, and this one a yarn, so as to let you know not to expect too much!

On a hillside above Dharamsala, a monk in maroon robes prostrated himself on the bare ground, and then stood up. He lifted a pole with a flag the size of a bath towel to his shoulder— the blood-red field with five yellow stars rampant could be clearly seen by the three bloggers and small gaggle of children who’d gathered a few hundred yards away to watch. A young monk held them back from approaching any closer. Up the slope, the monk with the flag turned his back on the crowd and began to walk, treading firmly and quickly over the hilltop and out of sight.

***

“The teachers seem on edge this morning—what do you think’s going on?” Mohali Khatoane—MK—asked the girl who sat across the wooden table, spooning hummus into a pita. Out the window an aspen grove framed a view of high mountains; the Satya Graha Institute sat in the hills above Colorado Springs along the front range of the Rockies

“That’s what it seemed like to me too,” Cass Goldfarb said. “Frantic, almost.” As she spoke, most of the cellphones in the small cafeteria began to buzz. “Urgent meeting in ten minutes in the Mandela room,” Cass read, looking across the table at MK. “Not a clue,” she said, standing up with her tray. “But let’s get good seats.”

***

Fu Zhang sat staring at a Dell monitor, one of two on his desk. The smoggy gray light filtered into the fourth story window of the squat concrete complex near Beijing’s Third Ring road, but most of the blinds were pulled, the better to see the screens on the long row of computers. Young people clicked quietly, investigating any references to Tianamen, or the Wuhan Flu, or the other “73 Bads,” a number updated regularly by their bosses in the Party’s political wing. Their job was to make sure that nothing controversial made it across the great firewall into the Chinese internet.

A Google alert for “Dalai Lama” sent Fu to an Instagram page; a slightly blurry picture of a monk on a hill with a Chinese flag appeared above a caption that read “DL Leaves on March for China,” with a link to Dharamsala.net. There, a one sentence post said only that the “Tibetan spiritual leader had left his Indian home-in-exile for a 2,000-mile pilgrimage to China, carrying a Chinese flag to show his lack of animosity to the Beijing government.” A quick check on SemRush showed Fu that the site had just 240 total visits in the last month; meanwhile, the Dalai Lama’s official website showed he was on a five-day silent meditation retreat. Fu—who’d been on the Dalai desk for three years—was used to nonsense, almost all of it originating with the DL’s Western devotees (only the month before dozens of websites had announced that the Potala Palace in Lhasa had briefly levitated). This was clearly more nonsense—there was no way the DL was walking to China, since he was very old and the Chinese would never let him in. He clicked the link that blocked the web page from showing up on Chinese screens. And then—just because it never hurt to be safe—he also sent the page on to his supervisor.

After which, he used his unrestricted global net access to check out air conditioner reviews on Amazon.com, printing out a sheaf of pages so he could take them when he and his girlfriend went shopping that weekend. As a matter of principle they never bought anything with less than a 4-star rating.

***

Maria Santos sat on the edge of a table a the front of Mandela Hall, watching puzzled people take seats, late arrivals standing around the glass-walled edge. She wore jeans, and a gray hoodie over a white t-shirt, and also a frown.

“If you look carefully, you will notice one of you is missing,” she said. “Matthias Persson. This is the reason.” The image from Dharamsala.net flashed onto a large digital screen behind her. “This story says that the DL has left on a walk for China, a pilgrimage,” she said. “As it turns out, that was not true. The man in the picture is named Lopsak Tuleng, and he’s not a monk, he’s a bald caterer’s assistant. We—to be exact, Professor Ramakrishnan—heard about this story from colleagues in Delhi this morning who are part of the Tibetan exile community. They were interested because we’d sent them Matthias’s paper from last term, and this seemed very close. You may recall Matti’s essay, because we distributed it to the whole school as an example of innovative thinking,”

She clicked a button on the computer, and the coversheet of a term-paper appeared on the screen. “The problem Matti tackled was that China’s communist government had effectively sidelined the movement for Tibetan freedom. They’d used their economic might to convince other world leaders to stop supporting the Tibetan cause, and were now basically waiting for the DL to die in the belief it would all fizzle out. Matti’s idea—the walk and the flag—was an attempt to reopen the issue, to simultaneously wake the Tibetan community and to disarm the Chinese. Our friends actually discussed the idea with the DL—and he was intrigued. But they knew this picture and report had to be a fake, because the Dalai Lama was spending this week on a med-itation retreat, and that in any event he would never have taken such a step without consulting the elders in his community. It took Professor Lee”—and here she indicated with a nod a young woman in the front row—“ten minutes of digging through dummy domain names to figure out that Dharamsala.net was paid for with bitcoin from the account of one Matthias Persson. It took 30 seconds for him to confess, and ten seconds after that for me to suspend him. And five seconds after that for me to decide to summon you all.”

She looked around at the room, saying nothing. Aina Aalto, from Helsinki, finally broke the silence: “But when Matti presented his paper to our seminar, you said it was one of the finest ideas for a campaign you’d ever heard. You said it had a ‘genius’ about it.”

“Which was my mistake, I guess,” she said. “It was a good idea. But an idea. It’s our work to have ideas—it’s not our work to put them into play. Mr. de la Cruz, what is the purpose of the SGI?”

“The purpose of the SGI is to serve as a training ground for a nonviolent future,” said a slight young man standing at the edge of the room.

“Correct. As you know, we sometimes fancy ourselves as a West Point of nonviolence. We think there’s as much potential—far more potential—in the forces unleashed by people like Gandhi as in the force gathered by all the armies on earth. And so we think the world would be well-served by research into non-violence, and by training exemplary people to know the arts of peace, just as every nation has an academy where the they teach the arts of war. But do students at West Point who come up with an exciting new idea for a flanking attack then launch a war in order to see if it works as well as they thought it might? They do not. Militaries—professional ones anyway—have a discipline and even an ethic that I’m afraid we have not built.”

“An ethic?” said a young woman standing near the door, talking in a rush. “An ethic? What about the ethic that got Tibet taken over? What about the ethic that got half its monasteries ransacked? It’s not like a military campaign—he’s not going to kill anyone. If Matti had asked me, I would have helped him.”

“I’m sure you would have, Ms Rupesinghe,” Maria said quietly. “And I’m glad he didn’t ask you, so we didn’t have to kick you out too. In the first place, not killing people is not the same thing as people not getting killed: earlier this evening elements of the People’s Liberation Army imprisoned the abbott and three novices at a monastery near Gyantse, and sent the pictures to the DL’s advisors in India. The Chinese know it’s a good plan too, or at least a new and unforeseen one, and they want to nip it in the bud. Second, we have no right to launch actions—non-violent movements come from the people who need to change the status quo. Our job is not to manipulate or foment; our job is to support and assist. We can suggest—that’s why we sent Matti’s paper on to our friends. But the forces we work with are too powerful for us to take them into our own hands.” She gazed at each corner of the room—few of the students, who had never seen her angry, met her stare.

“But my point in asking you here this afternoon is not to harangue you,” she continued. “I asked you to come because—because 3,000 people in Dharamsala rallied tonight in support of what they thought was the ‘Dalai Lama’s pilgrimage.’ Young people, mostly, the same young people who’ve been increasingly demanding guerilla armies and terror attacks to liberate Tibet. They seem intrigued by this new tactic instead. And when he heard what had happened His Holiness decided it was . . . worth a try. As of tomorrow morning—which is a few hours away in the hills of India—the genuine article will be walking with the flag. I want to warn you that your faculty may be distracted in the weeks ahead, applying our various specialties to help. And to tell you that if this gathers the force I expect it might, we will be drafting some of you with particular skills to help. And to insist that no one here will say a word about how any of this began. Am I understood?”

No one said a word. As they filed out, though, MK put her arm around Cass, who looked stunned. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, over and over.

“It’s a garbage dump, papa, as big as a mountain. And people live on it—they find their food in the garbage. They get their clothes in the garbage.”

When she was 11 or maybe 12, and living in the city of Dumaguete on the island of Negros near the center of the Philippine archipelago, Maria Santos had fallen hard for Jesus.

She’d gone to Mass since before she remembered; her father taught at the small college run by the Sisters of St. Paul, a French order, and since there was a primary school attached she’d grown up with nuns. But religion was mostly background noise till a young priest—an Irishman—had taken the parish youth group on their first trip to Manila, and after the cathedral and the zoo they’d visited Smokey Mountain, the endless landfill where tens of thousand of people subsisted on what the vast metropolis threw away.

There were, she knew even then, poor people in Negros too. But mostly they stayed out in the rural barangays and the coastal towns. If you were growing up on the campus of one of Dumaguete’s four colleges, with Girl Scout badges to earn, it was perfectly easy to go a week or a month without thinking about them. But harder once you’d smelled that garbage dump, and seen the families bent over all day picking through the scraps. Some of her classmates on the field trip had made fun of the ‘garbagemen,’ but Maria had just stared. Father Niall took them to the small church made of slabs of scavenged tin. A painting of Jesus hung on the back wall: Jesus standing in a garbage dump, the smoke from the always-smoldering fires wreathing his head. He looked so sad, in a way that had made Maria catch her breath, and that stayed in her mind.

“Father Niall said Jesus was sad because no one should have to live like that,” she told her father when she got back. “He said that some have too little because others have too much. He said it’s not what God wants. I asked him why God doesn’t change it and give them a good place to live, and he said because that’s our job.”

Forty years later Maria could still remember that smell, and the face on that painting, and the sense of Jesus that came with it. Jesus was kindness. He suffered the little children to come unto him. She spent the next three years raising money for the slum—first for Christmas presents and then, with the Girl Scout Council of the whole town, funds for a medical clinic. Before long she knew about bake sales and then about bank accounts and then about how to make sure the really popular girls were involved so that everyone would contribute. Father Niall went back to Ireland because the local government thought the farmer’s cooperative he’d set up in the mountains near Dumaguete was ‘communistic,’ but he stayed in touch with Maria, and soon the youth group from his parish in Dublin was sending money for the clinic too. The newspaper ran an article, and a picture of her wearing her Scout sash.

She could recall much more clearly what came next. In fact, she’d been thinking about it all week, since reading a not-very-good essay one of her students had written on the Filipino “people power” revolution. At 16 she’d gone back to visit Smokey Mountain, for a celebration of the new clinic. But that morning—a Sunday, with a Mass at the small chapel with the painting—she’d seen the men at the back of the service whispering to each other, and then starting to leave. When communion was done and people were walking away, the priest told her small group from Dumaguete the news:

“The celebration is cancelled. Ninoy’s been shot.”

They’d hurried to a small shack nearby, where a black-and-white tv was replaying the scene. Maria could barely see, and the replays were grainy anyway, but it was clear what had happened. Benigno Aquino, the leader of the opposition to the government, had flown back to Manila that day from exile in Boston, and as he set foot on the tarmac, with thousands watching, a gunman shot him in the head. Officials from the Marcos regime announced within minutes that the gunman was a communist but the people in Smokey Mountain just hooted at the tv. A communist had infiltrated the 1,000 police and military guarding the airport? Who riddled him with bullets seconds after he killed Ninoy?

Several days of martial law kept Maria on Smokey Mountain, unable to go back home to Negros. She stayed in a shack of a family that lived close to the church. It was clean-swept, and she found herself noticing the stench and the smoke less as the hours went on; still, to stay with strangers, two parents and four children sleeping in one room, was hard. She was embarrassed when they gave her the one real bed, and they were embarrassed when she insisted on helping the other kids carry buckets the three blocks to the standpipe, where they waited in line to fill them. To have no bathroom had been horrible, especially since no one told her what to do, but she followed one of the girls—Celina, her age—outside after dark. They lived, after all, in a dump.

For most of two days the family huddled around the small clock radio Celina had found in the trash months before, listening to Radio Veritas, the voice of the local diocese and the only independent media on the air. And on the third day they walked for hours to join two million others along the route of the funeral procession to Rizal Park. Maria’s father came to take her home the day after that, when martial law was lifted, and life resumed its normal course: high school, Girl Scouts, church. But not really normal. It surprised no one a few years later when Maria graduated college and joined the Apostolic Sisters of St. Francis, a small Filipino order of nuns.

“So,” asked the DL as they strode south down Highway 21, through the pines of the Kangra Valley. “Where exactly were you headed?”

The Dalai Lama and a small knot of aides had been walking for an hour with Lopsak Tuseng, who was sweating even in February chill. He was shoulder to shoulder with the living incarnation of the Boddhisatva of compassion—with God, more or less, whose picture had been on every altar he’d seen in his 31 years. Lopsak was dressed in fake monk’s robes, and very much wishing he was back at the catering hall in Dharamsala preparing momo for a wedding feast, his usual job. But the DL didn’t sound angry, and he found himself not just talking but pouring his words out.

“Your Holiness, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. They told me it was a scene for a music video. I . . . like music. I like to rap. Do you know rap? Snoop Dogg.”

“I know Dog G from Taiwan. I made a video with him. Socially conscious. The Beastie Boys organized five concerts to benefit Tibet—Adam Yauch. Run DMC played. Do you know Run DMC?”

“You like old school? I like old school. Mos Def? Do you know . . .” Lopsak shut up, suddenly aware that he was talking hip hop with His Holiness. “Honestly, I have no idea where we’re going,” he said. “I wasn’t planning to go anywhere. The guy told me to walk a mile or so over the pass, and he’d be filming me from a drone. And by the time I got there, there was that crowd of kids, and they wanted to know where you were, and I got scared and said you were already ahead down the road, and I was just following, and—and then you showed up. Where are we going?”

“We seem to be walking towards Mandi, so I guess that’s where we’re going first,” said the DL.

“Your holiness, I’ve caused enough trouble, I should go . . . I have my work. I am so sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry. I’m glad to be walking. Perhaps I should have done this many years ago. It feels good—as if we’re going somewhere, even if we’re not sure where. And you do look like me. At dusk anyway, you can carry this flag and no one will know.”

“Why are you—why was I—carrying a Chinese flag?” Lopsak asked. “I didn’t even know it was a Chinese flag. I only know the Tibetan flag, and the Indian one with the wheel. But I thought China was the enemy.”

“Not the enemy exactly,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to get across for many years. We know we can’t separate from China. China had Buddhism before Tibet—they are our elder brothers in the dharma. Since 1974 we’ve said—over and over—that we seek a Middle Way, not separation from China but a way to preserve our culture, our religion, our landscape. I’ve said it, but the Chinese people haven’t heard it. Their government calls me a splittist, they say we’re terrorists. Words cannot reach them. But maybe a flag can. I’m carrying it—and you will carry it at dusk—to show them we mean what we say. That we are willing to be part of China. If we carry it to the border maybe they will let us across.”

“Then why are we walking to Mandi? The border’s the other way.”

“Because that’s the direction where you started walking,” the DL said with a grin. “But it was the right choice. It will take a while for it to sink in what we’re doing. It will take a while for people to figure it out. Luckily, India is a very big country, and you can walk for a long time without coming to anywhere else.”

***

It was a smoggy day in Beijing—a ‘red alert’ day, with half the city’s schools closed, and the odd-even license plate regimen in effect. So the 332 bus was especially crowded as it plied its route, headed for the terminus at the Summer Palace. It rumbled past the Chinese Medicine Hospital, and next to it the anonymous, well-guarded compound of the Ministry of State Security, its rooftop whiskered with antennae and pocked with satellite dishes.

The day was so dark, even at mid-afternoon, that there was no need to close the shades in the fourth-floor conference room, where a young officer stood by a flat-screen monitor hanging on the wall. His laser pointer jiggled its red beam on the fuzzy image. “We can see him from the drone—his party, anyway. They’re walking toward the town of Mandi, and they’ll get there in two hours time.”

“How well guarded is he?” asked one of the two men seated at a table, watching the fuzzy image.

“That’s the thing, Colonel,” said the man with the pointer. “So far he’s not guarded at all. His usual Indian security detail is still scrambling to find him; he knew they wouldn’t let him walk, so no one told them he was leaving the meditation retreat. They’ll catch up by tonight, but for now it’s just a few monks.”

“And we have someone . . . on the scene?” asked the other, older man, who’d watched the presentation impassively.

“We do, sir. As you know, the Tibetan Youth Congress has been impatient with the splittist DL for many years. They think he’s not . . . splittist enough. We have people in most of their cells, including the one based in Mandi. He’s too easily tied to us for him to do the job, but there are young men in his group he can agitate. And he has a gun to give them.”

“Minister Hua,” said the colonel sitting by his side. “This is a chance. By tomorrow the world’s press corps will start arriving. The flight manifests for Chandrigarh show the BBC correspondent from Delhi is already en route. Someone has begun to spread the word. But tonight it’s still confused. If a Tibetan shoots him, we’re not to blame. It’s a free shot.”

“We’ve spent two decades waiting him out, waiting for him to die peacefully. It’s been working,” said the older man. “We’re used to it. Our policy is based on it. Tibet is half-filled with Han Chinese already. He’s an impotent man. No world leader will receive him any more—we’re rich, and so he’s an embarrassment. And now he’s just going for a walk, like an old man with nothing to do.”

“All that is true, Minister,” said the colonel. “If you’d asked me until today, I’d have said everything was going according to plan; nothing new has happened in years. But this is . . . new. We don’t know what it means, except that it feels like he’s not playing the same game any more. It’s the kind of thing that, if it happened here, we’d stop immediately, before it could snowball.”

“And if we did . . . deal with him. What would happen in Tibet?”

“Tibet is locked down. There would be reactions, yes. Some more monks would set themselves on fire. But the military is confident nothing would spread too far. Especially because it would be another Tibetan who’d done it. It would confuse them. And it takes care of the one unknown in our strategy, which is what happens when he dies of old age. That’s . . . unpredictable. “

“This is unpredictable too,” said the minister, his chin in his hands, his thumbs kneading his jowls. He sat for two, three minutes, as another bus rumbled by in the gloom outside. “Make certain no one can tie it to us. Not to China, and not to—us,” he said, gesturing at the walls of the building.

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