Monday, June 23, 2003

sowing the seeds of doubt

Tibet, Tibet: Dreams and Memories of a Lost Land, by Patrick French. HarperCollins. £20 ($32.65)

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in June 2003).

WRITER PATRICK FRENCH, a Tibet activist since the 1980s, set out in the summer of 1999 to see the ancient land, "unmediated by the versions or hopes of others." He travelled for nearly six months through Tibet, China and India. Afterwards, he gave up his position as a director of the Free Tibet Campaign.

"After all I had seen in the Tibet Autonomous Region and its borderlands, I could no longer view things with the necessary simplicity to be part of a political campaign," he writes. "I doubted whether a free Tibet had any meaning without a free China . . . Above all, I wanted to try to communicate something of the complex reality of Tibet's past and present, convinced that the existing approach of the Tibetophile lobby was leading nowhere."

In Tibet, Tibet, French captures that complex reality, debunking the myth of a mystical, beatific, pacifist Tibet with a comprehensive account of the region's history and a thorough examination of Tibet's long, troubled relationship with China.

The author of Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, which many consider the definitive biography of the man who led Britain's invasion of Tibet, and Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division, French writes with a historian's concern for truth and a novelist's eye for detail. Subtitled "A Personal History" in some editions, the book is above all the story of French's wrestling with his own relationship with Tibet.

Despite his disillusionment with the freedom movement, French has scant sympathy for the Chinese forces of occupation. Drawing heavily from The Private Life of Chairman Mao, the account of Mao Zedong's personal physician, he vividly depicts the insanity of Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Though the focus of his account wrongly implies that Tibetans were the special victims of the atrocities of that time, French doesn't flinch from blasting the exile community's oft-cited estimate of the number of lives lost due directly to the Chinese occupation. The claim that 1.2 million Tibetans died as a direct result of Chinese rule "is often cited as a piece of uncontested fact," he writes. But his investigation of the source data in Dharamsala shows that number to be unreliable.

Among other distressing clues, he found that the promised list of names did not exist and that only 23,364 of the documented victims were female. He deems that "clearly impossible" as it would mean that over a million Tibetan men died out of a total male population of only 1.25 million in 1950.

With characteristic honesty, French describes his dismay upon learning that naive efforts to satisfy Western activists' desires for statistical evidence has, perhaps, jeopardised the exile community's ability to pit Tibetan truth against Chinese propaganda. His first impulse, he admits bravely, was to suppress his findings.

But, he writes, "I knew, after everything I had seen in Tibet, that truth was more important than continuing to back the cause in its present form. More realism was needed, not less, when it came to Tibet. It was a land that had suffered for too long from the well-intentioned projections of visiting foreigners."

French, nevertheless, sees no reason to doubt the general veracity of the exile community's claims. Citing historian Walter Smith, he suggests that over 200,000 Tibetans are "missing" from population figures for the Tibet Autonomous Region and posits that it is "probable that as many as half a million Tibetans" may have died as a result of the policies of the People's Republic of China.

Taking on an even thornier problem, French refuses to shy from examining a side of the history of the occupation of Tibet "that has been left to one side as unsuitable." He meets retired Chinese cadre Wang Zhanpeng in Beijing to get the account of the first, dedicated Communist Party workers who went to Tibet in the 1950s with an idealistic belief that they were there to do good. Shaken by this interview, French goes a long way toward accepting the parallels between the civilizing impulse of the British and Chinese empires, admitting that his conversation with Wang "reminded me of interviews I had done with retired officials of the British Empire."

He detects in Wang the same "dedication of purpose and commitment to the ideal . . . overlaid by an unspoken sense that he had been overtaken by history, that somehow he had let down the ideal, or maybe that the ideal had let him down." Moreover, French discovers that the benevolent, if misguided, Wang was himself the victim of Tibetan Red Guards, who charged him with "taking the capitalist road" during the Cultural Revolution. The reversal of the often-told tale strikes home.

With similar balance, French addresses the Chinese claim that communism "liberated" Tibetans from an oppressive feudal system. His cursory account of the economy of old Tibet--"most taxes were paid by . . . human labour rather than in cash. It was this system that the communists term serfdom or slavery. In practice, it was a form of bonded labour"--does not justify his wholesale dismissal of the communist argument. But he does unveil the rarely discussed Tibetan caste system through a sensitive discussion with one of the Ragyabas--Tibetans of no caste. A victim of his own culture as well as of the communists, the man "flinched, he cowered and he kept his distance, as if he expected to be struck at any moment . . . He was, I thought later, like one of the older generation of Dalits, the Hindu caste once called Untouchables."

Unfortunately, French does not always bring the same careful objectivity to his travel writing. He describes most of the Chinese people he encounters in unpleasant terms, and (with a few notable exceptions) allows the passing English remarks of louts he meets in train cars to stand against sensitive interviews with Tibetan informants conducted in their own language.

Like many foreign travellers, he sees great evil also in the encroachment of the dubious aesthetic of modern China. Of a family of nomads surviving in the Tibetan grasslands, he writes, "I had come to a place where people lived as they expected to live, defiant of external authority . . . Life was regulated, and yet, providing you avoided involvement with the authorities, and could cope with the harshness of the work and the routine and the climate . . . daily life for these Amdo nomads was good."

Apparently, the noble savages are not troubled by these hardships. In contrast, the people he encounters upon returning to China are miserable demons.

French's blurring of the distinction between Chinese people and Chinese politics and his attraction to the "idyll" of life on the grasslands prevent him from coming to grips with the unacknowledged villain of his journey: modernization.

The tension between the historian's impulse to correct and analyze and the traveller's impulse to romanticize and preserve the "real Tibet" cannot, finally, be resolved. But the struggle makes fascinating reading.