Tibet, Tibet. The title of Patrick French’s latest book intrigued me. Vaguely suggestive of a biblical lament, it also hinted at a kind of patient reproach, of the sort that Sir Isaac Newton is said to have dished out to his pet dog after it knocked over a candle and set fire to his research papers (“Diamond! Diamond! Thou little knowest the mischief thou has done.”). I fancied that the title could offer me a clue as to the disposition of the book itself and after going over a few chapters realized I had not been all that whimsical in my supposition. Running through the book is an emotional undercurrent, a sense of disappointment if not disillusionment with a cause and a leader that once meant a great deal to the author. Unlike his previous books, Younghusband and Liberty or Death, both of which were remarkably well-researched and well-written historical works, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of A Lost Land is, as sub-titled, a much more personal work. As with things personal, some vagueness, contradictions, doubts and denials appear in the book, which though interesting in themselves as revelatory of the author’s state of mind (was it Ibsen who said that when we write we sit in judgment on ourselves?) do not contribute to the fluidity of the narrative.
Patrick French’s involvement with Tibet or more specifically with the Dalai Lama started as a schoolboy in England. He provides a fairly detailed account of this at the beginning of the book and adds that he gave up the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood to adopt Tibetan Buddhism. He even joined the Free Tibet Campaign in the UK and worked hard to promote the Tibetan cause in Britain. I remember seeing him, in the March of 1991 or thereabouts, dressed in crisp khadi, leading a large pro-Tibet demonstration around Trafalgar Square. Of course, he visited Dharamshala with other international activists. “We sat in the tea shops of McLeod Ganj, deliberating. Everyone tried hard to treat Richard (Gere) as if he were just another regular activist. There was a sense of momentum, that we were on the cusp of change.”
This was just after the major demonstrations in Tibet and the Tiananmen massacre, around the time when the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize and Hollywood was commencing work on two major feature films on Tibet. The Tibet craze was going international and it seemed inevitable, at least to Tibetan leaders and Western supporters that all this enthusiasm would soon translate into a brilliant resolution of the Tibetan issue. Patrick French describes it happening, “Everything seemed to be going well. The Free Tibet Campaign was thriving …, The plight of Tibet was becoming mainstream. Governments hardened their line and lobbied China over Tibetan political prisoners. Bill Clinton promoted the need for dialogue with the Dalai Lama at a historic joint press conference held with Jiang Zemin in Beijing in 1998 and broadcast live across the People’s Republic of China.”
A few Tibetans, beside myself, who had been involved in the Tibetan freedom struggle since the sixties, did not share this exhilarating frisson of, quite frankly, unjustifiable optimism. I expressed my suspicions and misgivings publicly in my writings, but only succeeded in putting the backs up of the Tibetan leadership and some of its Western supporters. As could be anticipated by anyone with even a basic appreciation of China’s cynicism, ruthlessness and sophistication in matters of “barbarian control”, these exciting years for the Tibet movement soon came to an end and the ice age set in. Patrick French admits, “It took some time to realize that none of this seemed to have had the slightest effect on the Chinese government.”
And why should it? Coupled with the fact that politicians, economists and business leaders in the developed world began to hail China as the ultimate investment opportunity and the market to dwarf all others, the Chinese government began to acquire friends with more political clout than Richard Gere or the Beastie Boys.
James Schlessinger, Michael Blumenthal, Alexander Haig, Richard Holbroke and especially Henry Kissinger began to actively lobby for China in Washington DC, and in turn gained guanxi access in Beijing for their corporate clients. Even former president George Bush, his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and his trade representative Carla Hills offered themselves as trade consultants on China to corporate America. Everyone made huge sums of money. The biggest contributor to the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992 was a shady Indonesian businessman of Chinese origin with suspicious ties to Chinese intelligence. Interestingly enough, some of these lobbyists, Richard Holbroke, California senator Diane Feinstein and her entrepreneur husband Richard Blum (who has extensive business interests in China) have represented themselves as sympathetic to Tibetans and friendly with the Dalai Lama, largely, it would seem, for the purpose of weakening Tibetan activism against China’s business interests in the USA. A classic instance of the successful application of the ancient Chinese strategy of yiyi zhiyi or “using barbarians to control barbarians”.
China then launched a major effort to refurbish its public image. The most powerful media czar in the world, Rupert Murdoch, systematically began to present a sanitized version of China in his many newspapers and TV networks. BBC news which carried a bit too many Tibet and Human Rights in China related stories was booted out of Murdoch’s Star TV satellite network which covered most of Asia. Murdoch also attempted to kill the publication of Chris Patten’s book on the Hong Kong handover and the efforts by Chinese authorities to undermine Patten’s efforts as governor of Hong Kong to ensure some measure of democratic rule for the island. Beijing also organized a major official campaign to influence Western support for Tibet and even made partially successful overtures to Western academics on Tibet to reexamine the Tibetan issue from Beijing’s point of view.
Tibetans also began to score a succession of own-goals. One of the most prominent Buddhist teachers in Europe, Sogyal Rinpoche, was served with a lawsuit for allegedly seducing a student. The Dalai Lama came under attack from a section of his own Gelukpa sect for depriving them of their right to worship a deity, Dorje Shugden, resulting in an unprecedented rejection of his leadership from a section (albeit a small one, but with noisy Western support) of his own community. Strangely enough Patrick French doesn’t touch on this issue. He tells us though of the story of another Tibetan lama “Penor Rinpoche who, in the most dubious of circumstances, identified the high kicking Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal (Marked for Death, Hard to Kill) as a reincarnation of the seventeenth-century master Chundrag Dorje.”
It did not help matters that the Dalai Lama himself now voiced his enthusiasm for brave new capitalist China (despite his oft-expressed Marxist and socialist convictions), and offered to surrender Tibetan independence for a measure of autonomy. The world of Tibet activism was thrown into disarray. Support groups and, in fact, the Tibetan government-in-exile itself became directionless and attempted to reorient their objectives around such other issues as the environment, world peace, religious freedom, cultural preservation, human rights — everything but the previous goal of Tibetan independence.
In this atmosphere of confusion, apathy and perceived betrayal many former activists and supporters began to drift away to other causes and concerns. Some did a bit more. A prominent Tibet activist, after a trip to Tibet and confabulations with Chinese officials now spoke up openly in support of China’s rule in Tibet. Others, especially Tibet-related academics, joined in the fun to demonstrate that they, unlike Richard Gere and the rest of the silly buggers, had not fallen for the charms of the Dalai Lama, and had known all along that the popular notion of Tibet as an idyllic and spiritual land was entirely a Western creation now being exploited by Tibetans themselves to gain support for their spurious movement. Books purporting to deconstruct this image: Virtual Tibet, Imagining Tibet, Demystifying Tibet, and Prisoners of Shangrila, began to appear in quick succession.
With such controversy surrounding Tibet, Patrick French wanted “to see it [Tibet] unmediated by the versions or hopes of others.” That was what set him on the road to Lhasa in the summer of 1999. “I wanted to move forward from the image I had created for myself during the years among exiles and campaigners.”
French finds a very different Tibet from the one he had previously encountered on his first trip in 1980. This time the atmosphere throughout the country is heavy with fear, resignation and hopelessness. Yet to his surprise French discovers that defiance of Chinese rule had surprisingly not ended. The fiercest and bravest advocates of Tibetan nationalism were often extraordinarily young — in their twenties, or younger… “their devotion to Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and the idea of Tibetan nationhood was clear, absolute and impassioned.” A nun Nyima tells him of the unbelievably rigorous supervision and spying in her monastery. “It was only later, looking back, that I wondered whether her courage — the very act of dissent in a totalitarian society — might be her means of psychological survival. Nadezhda Mandelstam had written that people living in a dictatorship ‘are soon filled with a sense of their helplessness, in which they find an excuse for their own passivity.’ Nyima, and others of her generation, were far from passive as they worked to keep the idea of Tibet alive.”
In Lhasa French tells us of the inmates of the feared Drapchi prison, five nuns who were beaten to death for shouting pro-independence slogans instead of singing required patriotic songs when a European Union delegation visited the prison. Another pro-independence activist Jampal Khedrup was apparently beaten to death by a prison official. Tibetans boycotted the Minority Nationalities Games in Lhasa … “Only officals in blue blazers and white baseball caps. There was no crowd. I had come to a fantasy National Minority Games.” Later he heard that a Tibetan wrapping explosives around his chest had attended the Games and managed to pull down the Chinese flag and had started to raise the Tibetan one. When policemen had tried to stop him he had attempted to detonate the explosives but it was raining and his clothes were soaked and there was no explosion.
The extent of anti-Chinese and pro-independence sentiments French encounters is surprisingly extensive. He even has a conversation with a Tibetan prostitute in Lhasa who tells him that she would never have sex with a Chinese man. French believes her, though he thinks that her decision might have more to do with traditional Tibetan prejudice against Chinese and Muslims. French even dedicates quite a few pages at the beginning and end of his book to an activist in exile, Thubten Ngodup. To draw world attention to the cause of Tibetan independence this former monk and ex-paratrooper doused his body with gasoline and set himself on fire.
But then Patrick French meets a Tibetan nomad, a semi-official functionary, Namdrub, in North-Eastern Tibet, who is certain that fighting for Tibetan freedom is absolutely hopeless, and that it made life more difficult for those who had to live under Chinese rule. This then, inexplicably, becomes the central message of French’s book: that it is pointless, even detrimental, for Tibetans to hope or struggle for an independent Tibet and that Western supporters of Tibet would be advised not to encourage this sort of thing. In an interview with Gulf News French states flat out: “I think it [Tibetan freedom] is politically unrealistic, and those who believe in it are naive.” And this is also the central message readers of French’s book seem to derive, for instance the Economist (April 9th) reviewer endorses French’s observation and adds “Tibetans working within the Chinese system have a better chance of safeguarding what is left of Tibetan identity than can any amount of righteous outrage in the West.”
Tibetans have always had such unsolicited counsel proffered to them from people with a strong interest in not offending China yet desiring to be seen as caring (though realistic) on the issue of Tibet. Such disingenuous concern is probably best dealt with by a curt dismissal of the kind that a British Foreign Secretary once directed at an aide. On 20 December 1961, the General Assembly of the UN, with 56 yeas 11 nays and 29 abstentions, renewed “its call for the cessation of practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, including their right to self-determination.” Even the British voted for the resolution presumably on the orders of Lord Home, who had become impatient with his staff’s petty arguments and excuses. One Whitehall aide had suggested that a UN resolution supporting Tibet’s independence might make the lot of the Tibetans even harder. Home dismissed this with a curt, handwritten marginal note, “It could hardly be worse.”
When Patrick French got back to Britain from Tibet he decided to step down as a director of the Free Tibet Campaign. “After all I had seen and heard in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and its borderlands, I could no longer view things with the necessary simplicity to be part of a political campaign. I doubted whether a free Tibet had any meaning without a free China.”
One is tempted to ask whether French would have said the same to dissidents in Eastern Europe. Would he have cautioned Lech Walesa that a free Poland would have no meaning without a free Russia? Let us remember that freedom came to Poland first and in fact it was that initial event that precipitated the downfall of the Communist world. And let us also remember that everyone then, including the experts, did not foresee the breakup of the Soviet Empire and were resigned to the possibility of the Cold War going on forever, in saecula saeculorum. Furthermore, for someone who quotes Nadezhda Mandelstam, French does not seem to appreciate the depths of despair and hopelessness that dissidents in Russia felt about keeping up their moral opposition to the Soviet regime, or even just maintaining their common humanity and integrity in the face of the steel and concrete permanence of their totalitarian world. I think we can conclude that Mandelstam did not choose to call her autobiography Hope Against Hope, as a casual afterthought. Unlike other repressive regimes in the world today as that in Burma, North Korea, or lately in Iraq, China’s has tremendous influence internationally in business, politics, media and academic circles.
In fact this power is so pervasive and so subtly intimidating, that a leading American sinologist, Perry Link, of Princeton has dubbed it the “The Anaconda in the Chandelier”. In an article by that title in The New York Review of Books, 11 April 2002, Link makes it clear how scholars, journalists, human rights lawyers, even “whistle-blowers” in the West find it daunting, sometimes impossible to write or speak in explicit contradiction of what the Beijing government has pronounced to be a “fundamental principle”. One of these being the fact of Taiwan and Tibet being inalienable parts of China.
In Patrick French’s case I feel that the principal, but unstated, reason for his advocacy of the abandonment of the Tibetan freedom struggle, comes from the fact that the Dalai Lama himself has called for it. Patrick French makes it clear throughout the book of his deep admiration for the Dalai Lama and often compares him favourably to those who serve him in his exile government whom he accuses of “incompetence and cupidity,” which though superficially an accurate observation is not a fair one. Essentially these are people whom His Holiness has chosen to have around him, maybe not so much for their competence as for their unquestioning loyalty.
French’s contention that “… the Dalai Lama has tried to bring democracy to the exiled government, and allow new leaders to emerge… but has failed because of conservative popular opinion” is essentially a pious fable that frustrated exile-Tibetans repeat like a mantra to berate themselves for the crushing stasis of their society and political movement. Of course, freedom movements are not democracies, but in the Tibetan exile world there is not even an attempt at open public discussion on national policy, and certainly no room for questioning the Dalai Lama’s judgment. In such a situation powerless functionaries and foreign “advisors” (whose primary criterion for selection seems to be how faithfully they can echo the Dalai Lama’s views) though deserving of a swift kick in the pants, cannot be blamed for the policy failures of the paramount leader.
Patrick French has managed to insert a considerable amount of history into his account, though not all his research is well digested. Yet somehow, despite the plethora of historical information, a central and abiding feature of Tibetan history eludes our author. Though there have been periods of Tibetan history when China (or rather the China-based dynasties established by Mongol and Manchu conquerors) gained a measure of control over Tibet, Tibetans have somehow always somehow managed to re-assert their independence: The Mongols were thrown out in 1358 and the Manchus in 1911.
In 1904 the Thirteenth Dalai Lama fled Tibet before a British invasion force. Seeking support in Beijing from the Manchu emperor, His Holiness received a humiliating lesson in realpolitik. The Beijing correspondent for the London Times reported that the Dalai Lama was finished and Tibet was firmly in China’s power (Chinese troops occupied Tibet in the wake of British withdrawal). The American envoy in Beijing wrote to a very interested president (Teddy Roosevelt) that he had been a witness to the end of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. For seven years His Holiness was forced to wander in exile in Mongolia, China and India. But in 1911 the Manchu dynasty fell and fighting broke out in Tibet. The next year the Dalai Lama returned in triumph to Lhasa and declared his nation’s independence.
Of course, history does not repeat itself in a mechanical fashion, and this is not to assert that Tibetan independence is inevitable or even foreseeable in the immediate future, but Patrick French’s failing is that he does not even allow for the possibility. All he does, in essence, is tell Tibetans to give up hope. Wang Lixiong, a leading Chinese writer on Tibet, is less sanguine than our author about permanent Chinese control of Tibet. In an article published in Beijing in 1999, Wang concludes, “A review of history shows that whenever Chinese sovereignty over Tibet gets out of control, the prerequisite is nothing but instability in China.”
The greatest of all modern Chinese writers, Lu Xun, would, I feel, probably not have advised Tibetans to curl up and die in the face of their present tragedy. He was a congenital pessimist, but he had this to say on the matter of hope: “Hope can neither be affirmed nor denied. Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path — yet, as people are walking all the time in the same spot, a way appears.”