‘Tibet: An Unfinished Story’, by Lezlee Brown Halper and Stefan Halper, Hurst, RRP£20/$29.95
In a world where modern communications has stripped most of the romance from faraway places, the myth of Tibet – shaped by British colonial-era officers and a few intrepid explorers – still exerts a powerful hold on the western imagination, even as 6m ethnic Tibetans suffer under oppressive Chinese Communist rule.
The country, depicted in works such as the 1933 novel Lost Horizon and numerous Hollywood films, has long been seen as a utopian, almost otherworldly Shangri-La – a “peaceful and tranquil place informed by reason and the miracle of self-discovery”.
Tibet’s cachet with the west has been no shield against Beijing’s drive to remake society in the remote Himalayan region and reduce its complex religious traditions to an exotic tourist attraction. Tibet’s fate was determined at the height of the cold war by tough realpolitik.
Yet in their gripping book, Lezlee Brown Halper and Stefan Halper argue that Tibet’s powerful myth still poses a serious problem for Beijing. “As China seeks a leading role in global affairs, the reality of its mistreatment of the Tibetan people has clashed with Tibet’s reified place in the western mind,” the authors – both Cambridge academics – write. “The result is revulsion at the deconstruction of a culture, and dismay with a leadership that permits such excess.”
The book explores the complex geopolitical calculations and prickly personalities that prevented Tibet winning recognition as an independent country after the second world war, then allowed it to be occupied by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950 with barely a peep from governments that Lhasa had looked to as friends.
Despite President Harry Truman’s 1947 promise to stand by “free peoples resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure”, Washington’s support was constrained by its ties with the forces of Chinese nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek, who insisted Tibet was part of China. “It is one of history’s greatest ironies, anti-communist supporters of the failing Chinese nationalist cause would prevent the US government from supporting Tibetan independence, due to objections by Nationalist China,” the book notes.
India had deep cultural and trade ties with Tibet, its neighbour. But Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, was determined to forge closer relations with China. Despite urging Beijing to resolve its differences with Lhasa peacefully, he was unwilling to go out on limb for Tibet – or even publicly oppose its invasion by the PLA.
In 1954 – piqued by Washington’s growing ties with Pakistan – Nehru formally accepted Tibet as part of China. The Panchsheel agreement, as the last British head of mission in Lhasa wrote, “amounted to the countersignature by India of the death warrant of Tibetan independence”.
From 1957, the US ran a clandestine programme training a small numbers of Tibetan resistance fighters and airdropped them back into Tibet to harass Chinese forces. But it produced limited results and was wound down in the 1970s, after Washington’s detente with China.
Though the tragic outcome is already known, the book, based on recently declassified documents, is as gripping as a spy thriller, with vivid details and fully drawn characters in all their heroism and foibles.
Most poignant is the teenaged Dalai Lama, struggling to secure his people’s interests. In December 1950, the 15-year-old cleric fled advancing Chinese troops, and took refuge just 12km from the Indian border. For months, US officials sent covert messages, promising to support the resistance, and urging him to seek asylum and publicly denounce an agreement a Tibetan delegation in Beijing had just been forced to sign, acknowledging Tibet as part of China.
Afraid to consign his people to protracted war with a powerful enemy, the young monk turned to traditional divination for guidance. Slips of paper – one for exile, and one for returning to Lhasa – were rolled into dough balls, and rotated in a bowl in front of a Buddha image. The dough ball with the paper advising return to Lhasa came out first. And so he did.
Today, the 78-year-old Dalai Lama, who finally fled into exile in 1959, is the living symbol of Tibet and all its aspirations, and the only meaningful potential interlocutor with Beijing on any reconciliation with the Tibetan people. The authors suggest China needs to rethink whether its repressive policies there are really in its national interest, especially given the region’s special place in the global imagination.
There is little sign Beijing is prepared for such a shift. But, as horror grows over Tibetans immolating themselves in grim protest at Chinese oppression, the story of this tragic Himalayan region is not over yet.
The writer is the FT’s South Asia correspondent