Sunday, March 25, 2012

Patrick French's "Tibet, Tibet": Book Review

This book combines French's clandestine and seemingly aborted (given Chinese surveillance) visit to Tibet in 1999 with a history and a context that brings into focus, more clearly and therefore more shockingly, the cultural destruction perpetrated in the name of Communism by the Chinese. The history is eye-glazing too often, but the personal encounters keep you reading regardless of too much diplomatic and biographical digression. French labors to demystify this realm, and his careful discussions span the whole variety of Tibetans caught within the grasp of a far more mighty and relentless regime, bent on obliterating what they do not contort to meet the expectations of a still-romanticized tourist trade. As he admits, no admirer of Tibet can fully abandon the romance that accompanies our visions of this land, but his book does separate what has been called the "mind's Tibet" from the considerably more broken and compromised real land and its people and its heritage.

French is too smart to gloss over the poverty that the some more well-intentioned Communists originally sought to eradicate when they overthrew the largely-feudal theocracy. He interviews an original member of such a delegation, and gives him as much a fair hearing as he does, in an unforgettably poignant scene, the account of an Amdo nomad who saw--in a single day--his land invaded and the outnumbered Tibetan warriors who rode against the People's Army's guns massacred. After one day, there was no more war, only guerrilla resistance that French shows was abandoned and left, without the US assistance promised, to be at the mercy of the Chinese. He interviews those remnants of the lower caste who cleaned the Potala, the fading few indigenous Muslims who had been there at least since the 12th century, and--over and over--those who have been broken by Chinese torture and imprisonment. His account of Tibet's fate in the Cultural Revolution and Mao's eagerness to "bombard the Headquarters" while "Maoists" marched in Paris in the same 1968 makes for grim comparison between Western naivete and Eastern pragmatism, perhaps the opposite of usual stereotypes.

He also, as a leading activist, takes on "Dalaidolatry" and how the current Dalai Lama has, perhaps unwittingly, been exploited by greedy book ghostwriters and failed to control the royalties and the rights that should have accrued. He even-handedly considers the failure of political rebellion against the Chinese and the impossibility of changing Tibet for the better without changing China, and how the latter must precede the former, perhaps in another regime change in the future. Meanwhile, his prognosis is sobering: India will not let the exile government of Tibet last long after the current Dalai's demise, French predicts. China does not deep down care what the Tibetans can do to fight back for it is ultimately so little against so great a force. Tibet remains a backwater assignment for Chinese cadres, and ironically Tibetans who have chosen to collaborate can also guardedly gain in small amounts a better life for their compatriots, given the lack of power Tibet has.

Realpolitik has given the real Tibet little hope. "The Mind's Tibet" may have occupied a higher profile outside in the West, but practically it has achieved just a little in tangible human rights or political leverage. Recent events since this book have only confirmed French's conclusions that the West is only too happy to favor Chinese trade over Tibetan aspirations. In both Asian lands, the people still suffer in the name of a regime that claims to alleviate their long-inflicted pangs.

I hope readers who reliably buy the lavishly photographed and sumptuously presented displays of Tibet's terrain and heritage and read Buddhist popularizations of doctrine will also promote this book as a necessary, if dispiriting, antidote of the Real Tibet that should counteract too much that is peddled for the Mind's Tibet. In a better world, this book would provoke outrage and foment change against the Chinese regime. In our compromised condition, still, French's message of facing the reality that Tibet may not survive the depredations of the past half-century demand more than armchair reading or contemplative reverie. (12-27-05 on Amazon US, recalled and revived.)

No comments: