TIBET has long exerted a strange hold over the Western imagination as a land of mystery and wisdom, whose people possess the secrets of true happiness and the meaning of life. They are also seen as a martyred people, victims of half a century of Chinese occupation that is sometimes equated with genocide. But much that has been written about Tibet is highly superficial, based on the authors’ idea of what Tibet ought to be like rather than any objective reality - what the mountaineer F. Spencer Chapman memorably called “the real Tibet of my imagination”.
This perceptive book attempts to cut through the fantasy and look at both the Chinese occupation and the role of the Dalai Lama in more objective terms. In the process Patrick French unearths some disconcerting facts. He is unusually well qualified for the task; an active campaigner on behalf of the Tibetan cause for about 20 years, and author of an outstanding biography of Francis Younghusband, leader of the military expedition that occupied Lhasa in 1905. This book is based on his travels in Tibet and research in Dharamsala, the government-in-exile’s Indian base.
Although contemptuous of clumsy official propaganda about China’s ‘liberation’ of Tibet, French grew suspicious of some of the exiles’ claims, in particular the widely repeated allegation that 1.2 million Tibetans, a fifth of the supposed original population, died as a direct result of Chinese rule. He was given access to hitherto secret files in Dharamsala, but found them full of holes and came away with “the unwelcome conclusion that this survey was a well-intentioned but statistically useless attempt to satisfy Western demands for data and tabulation.” French tentatively concludes that half a million people died as a direct result of Chinese policies, “a devastating enough figure, in all conscience, which in no way diminishes the horror of what was done in Tibet.”
Discoveries such as this fostered disillusion with the uncritical support that Western campaigners have given to the Tibetan independence movement. He stepped down as head of the Free Tibet Campaign: “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.” He was troubled by the government-in-exile’s claim to an area twice that of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), even though much of that land has never been ruled by Lhasa. It would be more realistic, French argues, for the Tibetans to base their claim on roughly the area of the current TAR, whose borders generally coincide with those of the de facto independent state between the two world wars. Instead, Tibetan exiles have wedded themselves to the idea of a “giant, theoretical Tibet” that has replaced the three historic regions of Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang. Thus Tibetan nationalism has intensified but a Tibetan nation seems as far away as ever.
French is also perceptive about the role of Tibetans who have cooperated with the Chinese. The exile community may consider them to be traitors, but some at least are “working within the system as a way of defending the interests of Tibet,” a pragmatic, sometimes cynical, decision but understandable and defensible in the circumstances., “Things are easier for us now,” an older Tibetan tells him, “but we are like insects in an open palm. In a matter of seconds we can be crushed.”
French pokes hilarious fun at Hollywood’s involvement – see Sharon Stone introducing the Dalai Lama as “the hardest-working man in spirituality ... Mr Please, Please, Please let me back into China” - and criticises some of the dubious business deals those around the Dalai Lama have made in his name. This is a fascinating and very welcome book, full of unexpected vignettes, from the Moslem community in Lhasa to a discussion of Mao’s early support for Tibetan self-determination. Some of the attempts to explain the allure of Tibetan philosophy appear trite - “Poverty can kill you, but widespread affluence does not bring happiness” is a hackneyed observation - but a knife fight on a Tibetan bus brings the author down to reality with a none-too-mystical thud.
Michael Rank is a journalist and translator who recently published a study of an English school in Tibet in the 1920s.