Response to Patrick French's "Dalai Lama" op-ed

(photo taken in Tucson, public talk. All rights Res)

He May Be a God, but He’s No Politician

Published: March 22, 2008


NEARLY a decade ago, while staying with a nomad family in the remote grasslands of northeastern Tibet, I asked Namdrub, a man who fought in the anti-Communist resistance in the 1950s, what he thought about the exiled Tibetans who campaigned for his freedom. “It may make them feel good, but for us, it makes life worse,” he replied. “It makes the Chinese create more controls over us. Tibet is too important to the Communists for them even to discuss independence.”

Protests have spread across the Tibetan plateau over the last two weeks, and at least 100 people have died. Anyone who finds it odd that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has rushed to Dharamsala, India, to stand by the Dalai Lama’s side fails to realize that American politics provided an important spark for the demonstrations. Last October, when the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Dalai Lama, monks in Tibet watched over the Internet and celebrated by setting off fireworks and throwing barley flour. They were quickly arrested.

It was for the release of these monks that demonstrators initially turned out this month. Their brave stand quickly metamorphosed into a protest by Lhasa residents who were angry that many economic advantages of the last 10 or 15 years had gone to Han Chinese and Hui Muslims. A young refugee whose family is still in Tibet told me this week of the medal, “People believed that the American government was genuinely considering the Tibet issue as a priority.” In fact, the award was a symbolic gesture, arranged mostly to make American lawmakers feel good.

A similar misunderstanding occurred in 1987 when the Dalai Lama was denounced by the Chinese state media for putting forward a peace proposal on Capitol Hill. To Tibetans brought up in the Communist system — where a politician’s physical proximity to the leadership on the evening news indicates to the public that he is in favor — it appeared that the world’s most powerful government was offering substantive political backing to the Dalai Lama. Protests began in Lhasa, and martial law was declared. The brutal suppression that followed was orchestrated by the party secretary in Tibet, Hu Jintao, who is now the Chinese president. His response to the current unrest is likely to be equally uncompromising.

The Dalai Lama is a great and charismatic spiritual figure, but a poor and poorly advised political strategist. When he escaped into exile in India in 1959, he declared himself an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance. But Gandhi took huge gambles, starting the Salt March and starving himself nearly to death — a very different approach from the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which concentrates on nonviolence rather than resistance. The Dalai Lama has never really tried to use direct action to leverage his authority.

At the end of the 1980s, he joined forces with Hollywood and generated huge popular support for the Tibetan cause in America and Western Europe. This approach made some sense at the time. The Soviet Union was falling apart, and many people thought China might do the same. In practice, however, the campaign outraged the nationalist and xenophobic Chinese leadership.

It has been clear since the mid-1990s that the popular internationalization of the Tibet issue has had no positive effect on the Beijing government. The leadership is not amenable to “moral pressure,” over the Olympics or anything else, particularly by the nations that invaded Iraq.

The Dalai Lama should have closed down the Hollywood strategy a decade ago and focused on back-channel diplomacy with Beijing. He should have publicly renounced the claim to a so-called Greater Tibet, which demands territory that was never under the control of the Lhasa government. Sending his envoys to talk about talks with the Chinese while simultaneously encouraging the global pro-Tibet lobby has achieved nothing.

When Beijing attacks the “Dalai clique,” it is referring to the various groups that make Chinese leaders lose face each time they visit a Western country. The International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington, is now a more powerful and effective force on global opinion than the Dalai Lama’s outfit in northern India. The European and American pro-Tibet organizations are the tail that wags the dog of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

These groups hate criticism almost as much as the Chinese government does. Some use questionable information. For example, the Free Tibet Campaign in London (of which I am a former director) and other groups have long claimed that 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese since they invaded in 1950. However, after scouring the archives in Dharamsala while researching my book on Tibet, I found that there was no evidence to support that figure. The question that Nancy Pelosi and celebrity advocates like Richard Gere ought to answer is this: Have the actions of the Western pro-Tibet lobby over the last 20 years brought a single benefit to the Tibetans who live inside Tibet, and if not, why continue with a failed strategy?

I first visited Tibet in 1986. The economic plight of ordinary people is slightly better now, but they have as little political freedom as they did two decades ago. Tibet lacks genuine autonomy, and ethnic Tibetans are excluded from positions of real power within the bureaucracy or the army. Tibet was effectively a sovereign nation at the time of the Communist invasion and was in full control of its own affairs. But the battle for Tibetan independence was lost 49 years ago when the Dalai Lama escaped into exile. His goal, and that of those who want to help the Tibetan people, should be to negotiate realistically with the Chinese state. The present protests, supported from overseas, will bring only more suffering. China is not a democracy, and it will not budge.

Patrick French is the author of “Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land.”

Mr. French writes that the Dalai Lama should drop his "Hollywood strategy" in favor of "back channel diplomacy." He asserts the protests by the "Dalai Clique" cause the Chinese to "lose face" when visiting the west. As a filmmaker I've been drawn to the Tibetan's tragedy not because of its celebrity. Interviewing monks who were chained to walls, electrocuted -- a doctor who left Tibet because he was forced to sterilize women at the behest of his Chinese overseers -- or the children who walked across the Himalayas, some who lost limbs from frostbite so they could learn to speak in their native tongue -- All of whom said goodbye to their family and country in order to keep their culture alive.

Because I live in LA, am I supposed to turn my back on their story for fear of making Chinese officials "save face?" It was Jiang Zemin who claimed he was like Abraham Lincoln because, in his words, "He freed the slaves of Tibet." To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen; "We know Abe Lincoln, Abe Lincoln is a friend of ours. And the Beijing Clique ain't no Abraham Lincoln."

As Mr. French knows, only 4-5% of China belongs to the Communist party, (73 million according to their official number) so a cadre of officials roughly the population of Shanghai, gets to dictate what the rest of the world can or can't think about Tibet. Why does this sound like a Nazi solution to me?

The Chinese may have no intention of giving up Tibet - but they didn't in 1906 either when they attacked Tibet after the British and Younghusband had withdrawn. Their forces were routed by the army raised by the 13th Dalai Lama, who kept Tibet Chinese free until 1949. For Mr. French to claim he found no evidence of the 1.2 million Tibetans reportedly dying as a result of the Chinese invasion, he neglects to offer a number that he thinks did die. 10,000? 100,000? It reminds me of the casualty figures that come out of the Iraq war. What is the number that would make you happy, Mr. French? And if it's under 500,000, should we doff our caps to those Chinese soldiers who merely starved the rest of those Tibetans to death?

It's appalling to hear Mr. French attack the Dalai Lama as if he'd devised a plan of popularity with a clique of "Hollywood phonies" instead of catering to those Beijing phonies who have claimed that "All religion is poison." In the history of China, what land have they ever given up voluntarily? In the history of China, what ruler negotiated a fair terms for the people they'd nearly wiped off the face of the earth? The same could be said for countries of the West - only an idiot would think that a dialog with charlatans, who continually claim the Dalai Lama is a "splittist" would amount to anything. "We have peace in our time," trumpted the biggest falsehood prior to "Weapons of Mass Destruction." The Tibetans only hope, according to Mr. French, is for the country to fall under the weight of its own banking system, and one day, like the Sioux Nation in the BlackHills of Dakota, their slave masters will fade into the woodwork once they've taken out all the gold, ore and uranium they can muster.

I personally interviewed a dozen Han Chinese shopkeepers in Tibet, while making my last documentary there, informally asking them if they could give me a frank assessment of why they chose to live in Lhasa. Every single one of them expressed a hatred for Tibet, and wished that they could return home to the lower altitudes of their native country. One pointed out that pregnancy results in being removed from Lhasa, because the altitude causes complications with delivering babies. To a man and woman, they all said the only reason they were in Tibet was because they were earning triple their normal salary. One day those salaries will fall, as law of supply and demand tells us; and those people will catch the first train home if a Chinese soldier doesn't stop them from doing so.

Mr. French does a disservice to Tibetans everywhere by claiming the Dalai Lama and his "Hollywood strategy" have done nothing to help Tibetans inside Tibet. Certainly those released from Drapchi prison due to international pressure, filmmaker Ngawang Choepel comes to mind, might beg to differ. While filming in Tibet, a monk came up to me with tears in his eyes and hugged me. He said "thank you for caring about Tibet. And thank the American people for not forgetting us." I prefer to think his tears were worth every effort of every person who tries to pressure the Chinese. The fact that they become intractable under pressure, is like saying during the 1930's; "Don't annoy the Nazis. They're only going to become more difficult to dealt with."

I invite anyone interested to view my documentary "Tibetan Refugee" which features interviews with recent arrivals from Tibet. It's available, for free, on youtube, (links provided next to this post - it's free - and only 50 minutes) and Mr. French can judge for himself what the Tibetans think about helping the Chinese government to save face.

Popular Posts

google-site-verification: googlecb1673e7e5856b7b.html