19 June 2005, The Nation, Thailand, Sunday Edition
The old Tibet has gone, never to be recovered. Should Tibetans now try and work within the system?
Rooting through my library I seem to have 17 books on Tibet. They fall into
categories: scholarly tomes, Lamaist inventions (the Lobsang Rampa crowd),
Lamaphobic rants, turgid religious tracts in “The Tibetan Book of the Seriously Ill” mode, romantic accounts of old Tibet written by displaced aristocrats and
eccentric travellers, works of shameless propaganda, analytical introspection looking at the phenomenon of the phenomenon, guides to dharma, insights into
the Dalai Lama and, oh, “Tintin in Tibet”. (“Blistering Barnacles! Little Chang’s fallen down a crevasse!”)
Meanwhile, more than 100 books have been published under the Dalai Lama’s
name. While many of them are loosely edited versions of his public talks, others
are scarcely by the Dalai Lama at all, but have his face on the cover to boost
My favourite book is “Tibet Tibet” by Patrick French, an intelligent
as well as passionate approach to what has happened since 40,000 Chinese troops
the eastern border on October 7, 1950, to “peacefully liberate” Tibet.
Since then, more than a million Tibetans have died under the Chinese occupation
as a result of torture, starvation and execution. Approximately 6,000
monasteries, nunneries and temples, were first looted and then destroyed from the late 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution.
Today, China maintains an occupation army in Tibet of at least 250,000. If
this is China’s idea of a “peaceful liberation”, I’d
hate be around when they really
get pissed off.
On July 6, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will celebrate his 70th birthday. Will he have much to celebrate?
Although voters and Free Tibet campaigners in the Western world might like
to see the Dalai Lama back in the Potala in Lhasa, there is zilch evidence that
their views have had any influence at all over the ageing Communist Party leadership in Beijing.
Nor have Western governments changed their own policies towards China. The
West will always place commercial and strategic concerns ahead of sympathy for
So, short of sending in the 1st Infantry Division, which would not only freak out those liberals who drive around with Free Tibet bumper stickers, but also start a world war, the Chinese will remain contemptuous of the opinions of well-intentioned foreigners, as they are of their own citizens.
An important element of China’s Tibet policy is Beijing’s total
lack of interest in negotiating with the Tibetan government in exile based in
Dharamsala, India. This is made clear in a document brought out of China and quoted in one of the exile Tibetan-language newspapers.
According to the highly classified document, a leading Chinese official said:
“We have no need to engage in dialogues with the Dalai Lama. His return
China will bring a great risk of instability. We will then not be able to control Tibet.
“The Dalai Lama is now fairly old. At the most, it will be 10 years before
he dies. When he dies, the issue of Tibet is resolved forever. We, therefore,
to use skilful means to prevent his return.”
That could be a mistake. Until now, the Dalai Lama has been a moderating influence
on the more radical elements of the Tibet movement. By ignoring him,
the Chinese leaders are set on a head-long collision course with an angrier form of Tibetan nationalism.
In this connection, Melvyn C Goldstein wrote, “The crux of the matter
is that Tibetans are unlikely to sit by for much longer watching Beijing transform
their homeland with impunity. Nationalistic sentiment combined with desperation and anger make a powerful brew, and there are Tibetans, inside and outside
Tibet, who favour a campaign of focused violence”.
As a result, the Chinese communist government, while no longer as zealously
ideological as it once was, clings to the old techniques beloved of paranoid
totalitarianism. As one writer put it, “they lie and bluster in public, arrest and torture in private.” In the early ’50s, Chinese officials faced Mao with a
draft constitution that spoke of the need to protect the legal rights of all citizens: Mao wrote in the margin, “What is a citizen?”.
Excusing its failure to win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people over
the past 50 years, Beijing blames the Dalai Lama for all its troubles in Tibet.
has called the Nobel Peace Prize laureate an “arch criminal who splits the motherland”, a “jackal”, a “reactionary feudal serf-owner”, and a promoter of
“rape, murder and child cannibalism”.
He is an infernal reactionary who has inhibited Tibet’s progress towards
a socialist proletarian paradise by maintaining the government in exile in
Dharamsala which, since 1959, has encouraged Tibetan nationalism, and Tibetan resistance, by its mere existence.
As a result, China has felt compelled to maintain a murderous grip over a “minority”
people. This, according to Patrick French, is Tibet’s great dilemma.
By remaining faithful to their inherited cultural values, Tibetans make life much harder for themselves in a world where no foreign power will intervene for
fear of upsetting the mighty People’s Republic or its own trade relations.
The more sensible, more pragmatic line to take, as some Tibetans have already
done, is to work the system. Only by joining the government can Tibetans hope
to ameliorate its policies. But unless all Tibetans do this, China’s imperialist belligerence will persist.
Yet as the tone of China’s attacks have grown shriller, the Dalai Lama’s
stature has risen. Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s detractors have managed to
remarkably few punches on him over the years.
The media predator Rupert Murdoch, who has extensive business interests in
China, claimed the Tibetan’s problem was that “half the people of
think the Dalai Lama is the son of God”, which totally misunderstands the fact that he is seen as an emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion, rather than
as a son of God. More importantly, it misunderstands his motivation.
Although the Dalai Lama may be feted by the rich and glamorous, his failing
is that if anything, he is insufficiently political. His inclination has always
been towards the spiritual and conciliatory, rather than towards worldly running.
His central, inner life is his Buddhist practice – as he says, he’s a “simple monk”, certainly more than he’s a political thinker.
Why the Dalai Lama is almost as beloved outside Tibet as he is among “true”
Tibetans is attributable to two related circumstances. First, the personality
of the man himself: he exudes an aura of serendipitous personal virtue, expressed as an articulate spirituality that, just because it challenges our
materialism, finds favour with us. Second, he is a figurehead associated with opposition to the inhumanities of Chinese communism, a brutality nowhere made
more manifest than in Tibet itself.
Interviews with the Dalai Lama tend to follow a standard format. At a press
conference in Perth, Australia, in 1992, I watched a hard-bitten camera crew
melt under his humour and tangible spirituality. They grinned beatifically, transfixed by the charisma and message of universal compassion coming from a
man who has kept the Tibet issue alive for half a century.
Chinese leaders tend to boast about the great social and economic benefits
China has brought to the “backward” Tibetans. Under Chinese rule,
airfields, power stations and bridges have been built and in recent years the country has been opened to foreign investment for faster economic development.
Ominously, a railroad linking China and Tibet is under construction. This development primarily benefits the Chinese colonialists, government and
military rather than the Tibetans.
The Tibetan population is still among the poorest in the world, the literacy
rate of Tibetans in Tibet is shockingly low, unemployment among Tibetans in
Tibet is growing fast, and in all walks of life, Tibetans are subjected to discrimination. Freedom to speak is unthinkable. Don’t raise your voice. It
might be seen.
“I doubt,” Patrick French concludes, “whether a free Tibet
has any meaning without a free China”. His words are given added weight
by the author’s
resignation as a director of the Free Tibet Campaign, which he helped found in 1996.
It is for the more scholarly to judge what French adds to the canon of knowledge
or interpretation; but as a synthesiser and as a guide, he deserves
whoops of applause. He is no longer hopeful about Tibet, just realistic. But then, history has a cruel way with optimism.
Although I’d like to wish His Holiness many happy returns, perhaps he would be more than happy with just one. To Tibet.
The Nation (thailand)