A humane, erudite, and a straight-talking man of principle, and a friend of HH the Dalai Lama, the internationally well-known award winning journalist Mr Jonathan Mirsky who passed away earlier this month (Sep 5) will be remembered for his outstanding contribution to publicising the issue of Tibet, writes Tsering Tashi*
(TibetanReview.net, Sep25’21) – The recent passing away of Jonathan Mirsky, aged 88, is yet another painful loss for the Tibetan people. He was an award-winning international journalist who also presented the truth and human side of Tibet’s situation. I first had the opportunity to meet Mr Mirsky in March 1988 when he was in India to interview His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala for The Observer (London). He had stopped in New Delhi to witness the 16 members of the Tibetan Youth Congress on “hunger strike unto death” aimed to shed light on China’s atrocities on the Tibetan people and draw the United Nation’s attention to the situation in occupied Tibet. I was then the Press Officer at the Bureau of HH the Dalai Lama in New Delhi and accompanied him to the venue near India Gate, where the global headline-making hunger strike took place.
Mr Mirsky was overwhelmed with emotion when he saw and spoke with the frail, weak hunger strikers as it was their 9th day without taking even a drop of water. He feared their imminent deaths would be a tremendous loss for Tibet and the Tibetan people because, from his reporting experience on China, he knew their precious lives hardly matter to the ruthless Chinese regime. Fortunately, a few days later, on the evening of 27 March, the 16 selfless Tibetans withdrew their “hunger strike unto death” after receiving a message from His Holiness and lengthy deliberations.
Since that poignant day, I have met Mr Mirsky on a few other occasions. He was warm, friendly, and highly respected as a China expert because of his academic and journalistic background. The encouraging thing for me as a Tibetan was that he never hesitated to write, speak out, and moderate discussions on the Tibet issue whenever he could. He also visited Tibet six times and wrote extensively on the plight of Tibetans under China’s rule. In an article titled, “How Tibet Is Being Crushed – While the Dalai Lama Survives”, in The New York Review issue of December 2016, Mr Mirsky wrote:
“During my visits between 1981 and 1989, some temples and monasteries were barely functioning and they were closely observed, including by policemen dressed as monks. I saw Chinese tourists and soldiers walking the wrong way around religious sites, a deliberate affront. The great temple complex at Ganden had been razed almost completely. In 1995 the Chinese kidnapped the infant Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, who had been recognized by the Dalai Lama. What happened to him remains unknown. The Chinese authorities put their own ‘incarnation’ in his place.”
Mr Mirsky, however, is best known for his bold coverage of the 1989 Chinese student-led demonstrations at Tiananmen Square that was ended violently by China’s totalitarian regime resulting in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese citizens. Their only crime was demanding freedom and democracy in China. That year in June, Mr Mirsky was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. In October the same year, the Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the non-violent Tibetan struggle for freedom.
In an article published in The Observer on 2 June 2019, Mr Mirsky recalled the brutal Tiananmen events that he says, people in China are still afraid to talk openly. He wrote: “Thirty years ago, in the early morning of Sunday 4 June 1989, I saw the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square mow down doctors and nurses from the Peking Union Hospital medical school. In their white smocks and caps they had climbed out of an ambulance to aid the mothers and fathers of students shot in the square a few hours before. The parents wanted to find either surviving children or their dead bodies. A column of smoke rose from the square where the parents feared – as I did – that the bodies of the dead were being burned”. He further recalled, “Late the night before I had seen PLA soldiers shooting – murdering – some of the thousands of students and workers I had watched peacefully demonstrating in Tiananmen since the middle of April. Many were crushed by tanks. Many were arrested.”
Having witnessed how the regime in China silences and oppresses Chinese people and others they control, Mr Mirsky, whilst reviewing Frank Dikotter’s “The Tragedy of Liberation” in the Literary Review in 2013, explained how the Chinese Communist Party dictates how people should think and speak.
“Many young Chinese, parroting the official line, maintain that what happened in Tiananmen Square on 3-4 June 1989 was a ‘riot in which bad people shot our police and soldiers’,” he wrote.
Mr Mirsky grew up in New York but spent his adult life in the UK working first as The Observer‘s China Correspondent. In 1993 he moved to Hong Kong as the East Asia Editor of The Times (London) until he resigned in 1998 in protest at its owner, Rupert Murdoch, accommodating China’s line, and moved back to live in London. His take on Mr Murdoch was blunt and direct. In a critical article published in The New Statesman, 13 September 1999 UK edition, he exposed Rupert Murdoch for his “ignorant remarks about Tibet and the Dalai Lama”. He accused the media tycoon of repeating the official Chinese propaganda and wrote, “Murdoch wants to make money in China.”
Likewise, Mr Mirsky has lambasted and exposed British politicians for sacrificing human rights at the cost of doing business with China. In a piece in The Spectator magazine in 2013, he discussed David Cameron’s “craven surrender” to China and gave an embarrassing anecdote about how then British Prime Minister John Major had lied about having raised human rights issues with his Chinese counterpart in 1991.
“In 1991 when John Major became the first international leader to visit Beijing after Tiananmen, he asked me for a list of several hundred political prisoners that Amnesty had given me. After he saw Premier Li Peng, Mr Major told the British journalists waiting outside the room that he had virtually banged the table about human rights and handed Mr Li the Amnesty list. That evening Foreign Secretary Hurd underlined for me how Mr Major had laid it on the line with Li Peng. All of us wrote admiring pieces about Britain’s principled stance. The Observer gave my piece a gratifyingly prominent spread. A week or so later an official who had been in the room told me that no mention whatsoever was made of human rights and no list of prisoners came out of Mr Major’s pocket and into Li Peng’s hand,” Mirsky wrote.
Besides other world leaders, Mr Mirsky has interviewed His Holiness the Dalai Lama, not once, but several times. His Holiness has admired Mr Mirsky’s works as a scholar and journalist and thanked him for his “longstanding support and solidarity with the Tibetan people”.
A documentary film, “Road to Peace”, on His Holiness’ visit to the UK in 2008, shows His Holiness reaching out to Mr Mirsky after his meeting in London with parliamentarians and journalists. The two of them, despite the glare from onlookers and press photographers, exchanged smiles and pleasantries akin to good friends reuniting after ages. After meeting His Holiness, Mr Mirsky tells the interviewer, “I always feel good when I see him. He always treats me as if I am a friend. A few years ago, at a similar event, he tweaked my nose, and I had 10 seconds of being a celebrity because three or four very pretty girls came up to me and they asked me if they could touch my nose”.
In his obituary of Mr Mirsky for The Guardian, Jonathan Steele wrote, “They shared the same sense of humour, and Mirsky was delighted to receive a long message from the Dalai Lama a few weeks before he died.” He also wrote that Mr Mirsky’s book reviews, mainly for the New York Review Books, were “always erudite and colourful, and are admired today by scholars of China for their astute observation.”
Now that China is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, my thoughts are again with Mr Mirsky, and I wonder what he would have made of it. In a piece headlined, “Don’t bet on the Games giving China democracy” on the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Evening Standard, 7 August 2008), he wrote:
“When the Olympics are over, it will again become a crime to mention Tiananmen, Tibet, democracy or Taiwan on the minutely policed internet. Beijing will put on a hell of a show tomorrow. But once the IOC caravan moves on, the authorities will again reach for their billy clubs and handcuffs”.
Mr Mirsky will surely be remembered for advocating for Tibet and sharing his thought-provoking and incisive critique of the totalitarian Chinese regime with the world.
* The writer is a former Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Northern Europe, Poland and the Baltic States, based at the Office of Tibet, London.