»  National Review Online

September 16th, 2003

  Tibet's Long Agony


Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land
by Patrick French
Alfred A. Knopf; 324 pp. $25

The disappearance of nations would impoverish us no less than if all people were made alike, with one character, one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, they are its generalized personalities: the smallest of them has its own particular colors, and embodies a particular facet of God's design.
                    — Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I met the Dalai Lama once. This was at Central Hall, Westminster, close to the Abbey, in the summer of 1984. I was doing freelance hack work for the London newspapers, and had reviewed Heinrich Harrer's recent book Return to Tibet for the Daily Telegraph a few weeks before. My review had been sympathetic to the Tibetans and angry at the Chinese, a state of mind that any honest book about Tibet is pretty much guaranteed to induce. Well, I got an appreciative letter from the secretary of the Tibet Society, a British charity dedicated to helping Tibetan refugees and putting out news about Tibet. Responding to an invitation from them, I joined the society, just in time for a visit to London by the Dalai Lama that summer.

So there I was, in a meeting hall with a crowd of Tibetans and British well-wishers. This was some years before it became chic to support Tibet. No pop stars or movie actors were present. The non-Tibetans in the crowd were mainly aging ex-Colonial Office or ex-Indian Army types, orientalist academics, a few clergymen, a scattering of middle-class folk who had got involved with the Society as accidentally as I had, some journalists looking bored, and a mere three or four socks'n'sandals New Ageists avant la lettre.

The Dalai Lama showed up on time, gave a brief speech from the platform in a mixture of Tibetan and incredibly bad English, then came down into the hall to mingle with the attendees. I was struck by the fact that he adopted two quite distinct manners for his personal encounters. Towards his fellow Tibetans, especially the large contingent of monks in robes, he showed a fine paternal gravitas, accepting their reverential greetings and gifts (usually a small white silk scarf, draped over two outstretched hands for presentation) with solemn acknowledgment, and exchanging a few words of Tibetan in a firm, low voice. To us round-eyes, he was the Laughing Buddha you may have seen on TV, all smiles and merry quips.

By some skilful jostling, I got close enough to shake hands with him. Hand-shaking is not traditionally Tibetan, but I had no silk scarf to offer and the Dalai Lama has moved among Westerners enough this past forty-odd years not to mind. He took my hand without hesitation. Our subsequent conversation was so far from being worth remembering that, naturally, I remember it verbatim.

JD:  Welcome to England!
DL:  Ah.
JD:  I am a member of the society.
DL:  Ah.
JD:  I hope you will have a pleasant visit.
DL:  Ah.

I had actually memorized the one all-purpose greeting in Tibetan: Tashidelek — "Good luck!" — but somehow forgot to deploy it when the moment came. It would probably have been out of place with the Dalai Lama, anyway, the Tibetan language no doubt having special honorifics to be used when addressing a person of such high rank. Be that as it may, I met the Dalai Lama, and dined out on it for weeks afterward, telling everyone I had shaken hands with God. (Not theologically correct, as he is not God, nor even a God, but merely a living incarnation of Buddhahood.)


Tibet's story is now pretty well known, I think. It is one of the saddest of the twentieth century. For precisely the first half of that century, until 1950, the Tibetans ruled themselves, with occasional — but, so far as the vast majority of Tibetans were concerned, inconsequential — interference from other nations, mainly Britain and China. In 1950 they fell victim to Mao Tse-tung's great project to reconstruct the old Manchu empire, of which Tibet had been a self-governing vassal state. The communists' desire to control people's lives, speech and thoughts soon drew them far beyond China's traditional role as a hands-off suzerain, and the Tibetans rose up against their oppressions in 1959. This uprising was crushed with great ferocity, the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas to India, and for the past 44 years Tibet has been a Chinese slave colony, wide areas of her land and culture laid waste by the conquerors.

There is a huge number of books about Tibet, of very variable quality and reliability. Some of the earliest are still among the best: Michel Peissel's Cavaliers of Kham (1972) and Dawa Norbu's Red Star over Tibet (1973) still read well after 30 years. F.R. Hyde-Chambers 1986 novel Lama is a decent, sympathetic attempt at fictionalizing some modern Tibetan history. More recently, Ian Buruma's reporting from Lhasa in his 2001 book Bad Elements gives a credible picture of the current state of affairs in that wretched country.

Now here is a new book I have just been reading, Patrick French's Tibet, Tibet, due to be published in this country next month. I would put this one near the top of a Tibet reading list, with some mild qualifications. French has been pursuing a personal obsession with Tibet for 20 years, and is the author of a previous book about Francis Younghusband, who led the 1904 British expedition to Lhasa. Here he gives a very comprehensive account of the country's past and present, and of his own recent travels there.

The trick in writing about Tibet is to steer a middle course between Shirley MacLaine and Paul Theroux — between, that is, New Ageist fantasies of a nation inhabited by saintly paragons of pacifistic spirituality, and that style of travel writing that relies mainly on disgust and misanthropy for its effects. French strikes the balance very well. While respectful of Tibetan-Buddhist beliefs and lifestyles, he is skeptical that they can be grafted onto a western personality. He quotes the Dalai Lama's very sensible words on this point:

In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you? Homeless inside yourself.

Or, as another wise man, Samuel Johnson, said: "We ought not, without very strong conviction indeed, to desert the religion in which we have been educated." Religion is connected to culture by living tissue, and cannot easily be transplanted.

Misanthropy is more difficult to avoid. Disgust is hard to keep at bay in Tibet — as, to a lesser degree, is the case in China. This applies to all species of disgust: physical, esthetic and moral. Physical disgust is a retreating problem in most countries, certainly including China, as modern standards of hygiene have now taken over among urban people everywhere, and are slowly seeping out into the countryside. In the remoter regions of Tibet, however, that seepage has barely begun, and Patrick French frequently found himself among people who have never washed or used toilet paper, and who evacuate unwanted fluids from their air passages unselfconsciously, with unrestrained accompanying noises, wherever they happen to be.

Esthetic disgust is a constant companion in any Leninist state, where large public buildings seem designed to be as offensive to the eye as possible, and lesser ones are a drab monotony of concrete slabs and cheap lavatorial white tile. In metropolitan China, things have been improving recently, with some quite imaginative buildings going up in Shanghai and Guangzhou; but by French's account, Tibet is still a concrete and white tile wasteland. He reports: "If a civilization can be judged by its architecture, Chinese Communism has not done well in Tibet."

Moral disgust is, of course, the right and proper response to the brutish fortune-cookie mottoes of Leninist imperialism — to a state of affairs in which good citizenship is defined by one's willingness to feign assent to gross falsehoods and to toady to thuggish tyrants, and in which devotion to the religion and patriotism of one's fathers is a capital crime. French is especially good on the moral conundrums that face a people under despotic colonialism. He distinguishes carefully between the two different types of collaborators: between, on the one hand, amoral opportunists looking out for no-one but themselves, and on the other, sincere patriots who co-operate with the occupying power in the hope of moderating the harshness of their rule. He actually seeks out people of both types and introduces them to us. One of the great strengths of this book, in fact, is the sheer number of Tibetans the author acquaints himself with and allows to speak to us through his book.


Patrick French writes rather scathingly about the Tibetan government in exile, and gives a depressing account of its amateurism, political incompetence, and occasionally dishonesty. Since 1980, there have been several moments at which the Dalai Lama might have got a toe in the Chinese door. He missed every one. Given the nature of China's rulers, it is possible, of course, that he would have ended up minus a toe, but on a couple of occasions it seems clear that the risk would have been worth taking. French also shows how utterly implausible is the figure, now an immutable fixture of exile propaganda, of 1.2 million Tibetans killed by Chinese rule. The true number is, he thinks, more like four or five hundred thousand. That is quite dreadful enough, in a nation of only five million or so, and especially when one considers the very gruesome methods by which many of those deaths were accomplished. Five years ago, for example, in Lhasa's Drapchi prison, five young Buddhist nuns were beaten and tortured continuously for several days by teams of sadistic guards, until they all died. Similar things are undoubtedly going on today. The sufferings of Tibet under Chinese rule are plain enough, and sufficiently well documented. They do not need exaggerating.

French deals unsparingly with those foreign governments that were complicit in the Tibetan tragedy. He writes bitterly about the duplicity of the British (he is himself British) and the careless meddling of U.S. administrations, beginning with Eisenhower's. Here, in fact, he gets a little carried away, observing at one point that: "In December 1971, Henry Kissinger tried without success to persuade China to invade India." Ah, Kissinger, the great Antichrist! I suspect that Patrick French's true colors are green, if not actually pink; but, to his credit, he keeps them decently well out of sight in all but one or two places in his book. As hard as he is on our diplomats and politicians, he is not much kinder when writing about the treatment of Tibetan issues in our major media by celebrity-obsessed dimwits like Larry King, who introduced the Dalai Lama to his viewers as "a leading Muslim." Not the least depressing thing about the Tibetan tragedy, in fact, is that hardly anybody comes out of it looking good.

The principal exceptions are Tibet's own patriots, especially the younger ones. French gives a riveting portrait of one such, a young nun he calls Nyima (I very much hope this is not her real name). Many of the other women in her nunnery are in their twenties or thirties. They are devoted to their faith, to the Dalai Lama, to the hope that one day their country will be free again. Says Nyima by way of explanation: "It's only my generation that can tell the truth. It's better that the older nuns don't speak out. They've passed through such painful times that we don't want them to have any more suffering or political problems." Reading of courage like that makes one feel very feeble and ineffectual. It's almost impossible to believe that evil will triumph over these brave spirits for another five decades.


The subjugation of Tibet brought out the worst in the Chinese communists, and the Tibet issue continues to do so. Current Chinese policy amounts to a Brezhnev principle: "What we have, we hold." Official propaganda on this topic is even more crude and vapid than the Communist Party norm. Confronted with questions from foreigners, Beijing spokesmen just keep doggedly repeating the lie that: "Tibet is a part of China, and has been since ancient times," until the foreigner gets tired and loses interest. If you try to get your spokesman to justify that statement, he either loses his temper or else descends into nonsense. (As a sample of the latter, one very well-educated Chinese official, speaking flawless English, once explained to me that Chinese and Tibetan are both descended from a common ancestral language. "Which proves we are one people!" Now, it is perfectly true that the two languages have a common ancestor, the hypothetical proto-Sinitic. It is likewise true, however, that English, Irish, French, Greek, Russian, Farsi and Urdu are all descended from a common language, proto-Indo-European … so presumably our division into separate nations is all some kind of ghastly mistake.)

There is actually a case for Chinese control over Tibet, though the communists are much too stupid to make it. Tibet is, after all, China's back yard. A nation with a history of having suffered disastrous invasions has every right to keep a wary eye on its back yard, and to use its authority to keep trespassers out and the neighbors at bay. That was the old imperial understanding, and it worked very well under the principle of hands-off suzerainty. (The more history I read, the more I begin to think that a sensible, well-managed imperialism is the solution to many of the world's problems.)

None of that is an excuse for the terrible cruelties inflicted on the Tibetans this past fifty years, for the deliberate destruction of their culture and heritage, or for the callous indifference with which the present authorities handle the country, leaving most Tibetan affairs to the tender mercies of the secret police. (The Chinese official currently in charge of the colony does not even live in Tibet, but in a neighboring Chinese province. None of the senior Chinese officials responsible for Tibet bothers to learn Tibetan. They would laugh at the suggestion, believing that Tibetans are a kind of untermensch who need to be sinicized as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The current Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was nominally in charge of Tibet from 1988 to 1992, but actually spent most of those years in Beijing kissing up — very successfully, as it turned out — to his Party superiors. He does not, so far as I have been able to ascertain, speak one word of Tibetan.)


The United States has her hands full right now, and there is a great deal going on in the world to get upset about. Tibet is of no importance to anyone, whereas the cooperation of the Chinese government is of the utmost importance to the free world in all kinds of areas — most notably, at the moment, in dealing with the North Korean issue. Outside the sphere of private charity towards the refugees, we can do nothing directly to help Tibet, and probably, from the point of view of simple self-interest, should not try.

Patrick French writes: "I [doubt] whether a free Tibet has any meaning without a free China." That is surely right. The great task of the world in the early 21st century is to try to help China advance towards rational, consensual government, from which true Tibetan autonomy — or at least a return to the old suzerainty principle — will follow. For all the dazzling material improvements of the last 25 years, political power in China is still in the hands of a clique of amoral Leninists, who have no intention of sharing that power with the Chinese people, much less with the non-Chinese inhabitants of their colonies. Tibet, and good books about Tibet like the one Patrick French has just written, at least serve to remind us of that fact.