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The End of an Illusion

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Tuesday, Aug 1, 1989
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 A Fire in June. Burning vehicles of the PLA – June 4th 1989. (Photo by Robert Croma)

A Fire in June. Burning vehicles of the PLA – June 4th 1989. (Photo by Robert Croma)

Despite an unassailable world record of cruelty, violence and despotism throughout its long history, China, like Molière’s monster hypocrite Tartuffe, has always managed to maintain a rather enviable gift of ever renewable plausibility — at least till now. After the Tiananmen Square massacre though, it is just possible that this gift has finally become exhausted with abuse and overuse. I say “possible” because, in spite of the horror and indignation with which the world has reacted to the murder of the Chinese students, human memory — though reinforced by colour photographs of young Chinese heads flattened by tank tracks — is far too distressingly short; especially when it is in the interests of big business and realpolitik to make it so. Still, one must be grateful that the world has, for once, seen the real China.

However murderous the conduct of the Chinese leadership toward its young people, the global revelation of the tragedy has provided a fillip to those Tibetans who have not abandoned the hope of an independent Tibet. Being one of those “militants” or “extremists”, as the Tibetan ruling class and the international media have quite indiscriminately labelled any Tibetan who has objected to the casual surrendering of his country’s sovereignty, the events in China have not only buoyed my hopes for Tibet’s future, but also vindicated two much criticized, often ridiculed, yet long held convictions of mine.

The first of these has been that the Communist system in China is, and has always been, incapable of changing its essential nature. Certainly, this is not an original observation. George Orwell has often remarked on the basic unchanging nature of totalitarian systems, and the naivety of the people who would seek reform them from within. Jean-François Revel has, in How Democracies Perish, given a penetrating insight into how Deng’s so-called liberalization was “passed just far enough to save Communism, never far enough to begin transforming it, much less abandoning it.”

Simon Leys, “the most astute, the most elegant, the most corrosive — simply the best — of the contemporary China-lovers and China-watchers” (according to Susan Sontag), has, in his many essays, commented so exhaustively and discerningly on “the exact measure of the beast’s ability to change its stripes and its spots”, that anyone reading them could not help but see as I did, the essential lie of Deng’s “Brave New World”.

Another conviction I shared with Leys was that the “Communist regime was dead”; that China under Communist rule “appears more and more like a dead planet, it is on steady course, but the very nature of its political atmosphere prevents any kind of growth, and even seem to preclude the emergence of life; yet it will pursue its sterile and immutable course till a random collision makes it explode” (The Burning Forest).

For many years I had felt that China must fall, pace Marx, of its inherent contradictions. How was it possible for a nation where millions upon millions of people had been murdered by their own rulers (The Guinness Book of World Records ascribes the greatest massacre in history to the Communist Party of China : about sixty million killed from 1949 to 1970), where millions of others were tortured, humiliated and starved in bleak gulags in Manchuria and North Eastern Tibet — how was it possible to erase all this from a nation’s memory and start afresh on the road to capitalism and, perhaps, democracy.

It must not be forgotten that the denunciators, the informers, the torturers and the murderers were all still there — butter not melting in their mouths — living side by side with their old victims. Now, once again, these creatures of the Communist Party have emerged to carry on from where they left off, when the illusion of liberalization was first foisted upon the world.

In the euphoria subsequent to the fall of the “Gang of Four” and the advent of the Four Modernisations, my dual convictions were not the easiest to maintain, much less air, as I was normally prone to do at the least provocation, making my self a bit of a bore in drinking circles in Dharamshala.

All the Tibetan delegations that toured Tibet and China, though suitably lachrymose about conditions in Tibet, were tremendously impressed by developments in China. A relative of mine, who was a member of one of the early delegations, lectured me on his return about how outdated and Cold-Warish my ideas (as expressed in my articles in the Tibetan Review) were. China was going to catch up with Japan in ten years, he maintained confidently, and I was to mark his words. The Chinese were not like the Indians, he further pointed out to me. They were patriotic, organised, efficient and cultured; and only the Maoist straight-jacket had so far prevented them from realising their true potential. But under Deng there would be no stopping them.

I tried to put things in a historical perspective and argued that no society could be expected to change from such extremes of totalitarianism to capitalist-democracy overnight, especially when the same old Communist Party was running the show. I attempted to quote Simon Leys (who else?), but was sternly reprimanded for being bookish, as usual. He had seen China. He had seen the giant ultra-modern five-star hotels (better than any in New Delhi). He had seen the magnificent symphony orchestras with their members in black ties and tails (just like in the West) — and I had not. That settled my hash.

Everywhere in Tibetan society, especially the closer one got to ruling circles, there was a surge of optimism and rejoicing so infectious that it was a tremendous strain not to be carried away by it, especially when by so doing you were not only endorsing the official Dharamshala line but also improving your prospects of advancement in the hierarchy.

The Chinese leaders were now “reasonable people”. Hadn’t Hu Yaobang apologized for Chinese excesses in Tibet? It was surely just a question of time before they would see their mistake in alienating the Dalai Lama and come up with an acceptable compromise whereby some kind of “genuine” autonomy would be given to Tibet. The spirit of sweet reason being thus supposedly displayed by Chinese leaders was certainly reciprocated by Tibetan leaders. A Kashag minister told me that both the Tibetans and the Chinese had made mistakes but that it was now high time we patched up our differences. The absurdity of this facile comment saddened me. I wanted to argue with him, but I didn’t. I knew better. Sophistry was his element, as it was his Cabinet colleagues’. They were born to it, they breathed it, they could swim and fly in it, anything, except surface from it for even a minute and admit to reality.

Many other Tibetans found opportunities to do business with the Chinese. One group, “The International Fund for the Development of Tibet”, even went so far as to solicit funds from various aid agencies in the USA and Europe for influential collaborators in Tibet and their projects, in return for trading concessions from China for some of their own members.

The Tibetan government was busy trying to find a term or phrase under which it could preserve a scrap of dignity in its frantic efforts to effect a reconciliation with Beijing. “Genuine autonomy” was tried, but it smelt too strongly of the 17-Point Agreement, and was hastily dropped. “Confederation” enjoyed a brief vogue, but in the end everyone happily settled for “association”, which we will be getting back to later.

With all this, and many other feat of gratuitous self-deception — too many to mention here — performed with monotonous regularity since Deng came to power, it did not required any greater foresight to see that, sooner or later, Strasbourg had to come.

When it did, however, Tibetans were shocked. Unprecedently, there were open protest against the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Proposal from individuals and groups of Tibetan all over the world. Tibetan society everywhere was rife with rumours and speculation as to how such a disaster could ever have taken place. Nearly everyone was of the opinion that the Kashag was largely to blame for not given better advice to His Holiness. A fair bit of criticism was directly at the Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup. Though presumably long retired from Tibetan politics and settled in Hong Kong, he was, according to the Kashag White Paper issued in 1988, conducting his own reconciliation talks with Beijing — which the Tibetan government disowned.

My own views on the causes of our national lunacy have been aired far too often in the pages of the Tibetan Review to bear repeating. But this time a somewhat novel aspect of this mess has come to light which I feel would be well worth investigating. This is the matter of the “Foreign Hand”— as such things termed in India — in the formulation of Tibetan national policies. The first expression of public concern about this danger was voiced by Phuntsok Wangyal in his article, “Giving up the Struggle” (Tibetan Review) though, unfortunately, no details were provided.

In our eagerness to change the views of the Chinese leaders regarding Tibet, we have quite lost sight of the fact that they could be doing just the same to us : persuading us to give up our demands for independence. By this I do not mean the many public announcements by Chinese Leaders and their propaganda apparatus calling on those of us in exile to give up our “splittist” views and return to Tibet, but other indirect and far more insidious methods.

Anyone who has seen the Tony award winning play M. Butterfly, will realise that Communist China has, at least in one sphere of human activity, not entirely turned its back on its past. The story of the play could well have been lifted straight from the pages of a Chinese classic novel like Shui hu zhuan (literally “Marsh Chronicles”), and San guo yan yi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), which are not only action-packed historical tales, but virtual compendiums of various techniques of subterfuge, espionage, conspiracy and assassination, presumably indispensable in the pursuit of power in China. Mao himself has frequently acknowledged his great debt to these two novels.

M. Butterfly is based on the true story of a French diplomat posted to Beijing in the 1960’s, who fell in love with a beautiful Chinese opera star. For twenty years they carried on a love affair. When the diplomat returned to Paris, his lover, Soong, followed him — and continued to ask him for favours. These were not ordinary favours. They involved state secrets which the diplomat unknowingly passed on to his paramour during his long stay in China. But in Paris their luck ran out. The diplomat was arrested and soon learned the startling truth : his lover was a spy. “She” was also a man — a trained female impersonator.

I am not trying to a start a spy scare here in Dharamshala, but if Beijing is prepared to use so much ingenuity on just one French diplomat, it is frightening to contemplate how much more effort and cunning it would be prepared to expend on its old bugbear, the Tibetan government-in-exile. Quite possibly it would succeed — specially when, unlike the French, we have no counter-intelligence capability worth the name. But even if the top Chinese moles in Dharamshala were to remain undetected, there are other “unconscious agents”, to use the jargon of the trade, who are quite possibly being used by Beijing in its unwavering quest to undermine the Tibetan struggle for independence. It is probable that none of these “unconscious agents” think that they are, in any way, working for the Chinese. Some might genuinely feel that they are helping the Tibetan people.

In the early autumn of 1979, the former British prime minister, Edward Heath, took a trip to Tibet. According to John Fraser, the bureau chief in Beijing of the Toronto Globe and Mail, Heath had disgraced himself. “He went to Tibet and, according to eyewitnesses, did little but grumble about his accommodation. He saw virtually nothing of the real Tibet. When he returned to Beijing he took it upon himself to congratulate Vice-Premier Deng on the good work the Chinese were doing in Tibet, despite the fact that there was much evidence of a repressive colonial regime.” Shortly afterwards, Heath flew to San Francisco and sought an audience with the Dalai Lama, who was there on a visit at that time. Heath reportedly made lengthy and heavy handed attempts to coerce the Dalai Lama into dropping his struggle for a free Tibet, and into making his peace with the new leadership in China.

Another former British political personality who has offered similar advice to His Holiness is Lord Ennals, a former Foreign Office minister with a long record of friendship with China, who is considered to be an advisor to the Dalai Lama’s government. After his return to London from a visit to China and Tibet, he addressed a pro-Tibet rally in south London where, after describing the plight of the people in Tibet, he called on the Chinese leadership to “show imagination in the administration of their oldest territory”. (My italics. The Independent, Monday, 11 April 1988). After his return from Tibet, Ennals also came out with a report entitled Tibet in China. Though it is an informative document, there are passages in it that are not at all reassuring.

For instance, when the Chinese officials accused the Dalai Lama of seeking independence for Tibet, Ennals replied and “stressed” that “they misread the Dalai Lama, and that most outspoken calls we had found for independence came from within Tibet”. Ennals made his trip to Tibet at least a year before the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Proposal.

But the most disturbing passages in the entire document is in Ennals’ introduction where he states that :

For their part China has now become a constructive force for good, is playing a positive role in the world and has showing a high degree of statesmanship in its handling of the future of Hong Kong, a situation not totally dissimilar from Tibet.

Anyone who is not employed by the British Foreign Office knows very well what China’s handling of the future of Hong Kong is really all about. By wielding the trade whip it has ensured that Britain will permit no direct elections to Legco, the tame Hong Kong Parliament, and that the “Basic Laws” being drafted for Hong Kong for use after Britain’s departure in 1997, further ensure, in spite of the high-sounding Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 on which they are based, that in practice Beijing will be able to do as it pleases in Hong Kong.

It would be hard to find anyone in Hong Kong who does not believe that Britain has sold them out. Though many are fleeing the island, there are others who are demanding that as crown subjects, they be entitled to full British citizenship. Unwilling to let hordes of Chinese into the UK, the British government is doing its best to downplay the fears of Hong Kong residents.

Unfortunately, the issue of Tibet, a country to which, in the past, self government had also been promised, re-emerges continually to contradict Britain’s portrait of a benign, enlightened China. Newspaper reports and TV footage of unarmed demonstrators being shot in Tibet have done nothing to reassure Hong Kong citizens about their future. It would certainly be in Britain’s interest if the Tibetans gave up their demands for independence and lived quietly under Chinese rule. The fears of Hong Kong Chinese could then be more effectively assuaged, and the colony handed over to the China in 1997 without even a minor hiccup in trade relations between Britain and China. But the massacre at Tiananmen Square has put paid to all that.

Like many former political personalities, Jimmy Carter also made his pilgrimage to China, and the mandatory side-trip to Lhasa, a couple of years ago. He, too, found much to congratulate the Chinese leadership for in Tibet. Shortly after his trip, a Tibetan government office in Dharamshala received a letter from the “Carter Crisis Center”, offering to bring about a reconciliation between the Tibetans and the Chinese.

When in power, Carter, in spite of his much-vaunted initiative to formulate US foreign policy around human rights concerns, totally ignored the Tibetan question. Carter’s policy raised a great deal of hope among Tibetans, and many petitions from the Tibetan government-in-exile and other organization were submitted to him. During a hunger strike by Tibetans before the office of UN representative in Delhi in 1977, even the American Embassy was sufficiently moved to receive a delegation from the hunger strikers’ organisation. The first secretary not only accepted a petition for President Carter, but also discussed the Tibetan issue with members of the delegation.

But Carter’s stand on China was essentially one of absolute appeasement, even when the traditional American balance of interest between Taipei and Beijing was rashly and irresponsibly destabilized after Carter’s hasty and ill thought-out “normalization” with Beijing. Not only did this embolden Deng to carry out his attack on Vietnam, but, according to John Fraser in Beijing :

The normalization announcement came on the eve of important election in Taiwan that would have marked a real breakthrough in the democracy movement there. The American action gave the Kuomintang the opportunity to raise the specter of “national security”, and the elections were postponed. Although the American government had given generous support to Taiwan for years, the manner of its leave-taking was ignoble, and the timing was close to criminal.

What, then, are we to conclude, when it is clear that Jimmy Carter has definitely influenced the Dalai Lama’s Strasbourg Proposal? He is the only individual named in the entire document. He is, also, thanked for his “keen interest” in the Tibetan situation.

Simon Leys consider Carter to be “a fool with initiative” (The New Republic, 10 March 1979). He derives this comparison from an old Russian proverb which says, “to have a fool is bad, but to have a fool with initiative is worse”. Leys further informs us that “for all the expertise displayed in Carter’s China policy, it could well have been designed by Shirley MacLaine.”

Which now brings us to this famous film star and New Age high priestess. Ms. MacLaine also travelled to China where she met a former nuclear physicist on a farming commune. She was tremendously impressed by him when he told her that growing cabbages was just as important as the work he used to do in a laboratory.

Ms. MacLaine has also made public that her lover was the Dalai Lama’s “right hand man”. To be fair, Michael Van Walt Van Praag, doesn’t always refer to himself in the above manner; a more modest, “Dalai Lama’s Lawyer”, being the preferred designation under which he has been long involved with the Tibetan leadership. He is also known to be one of the Dalai Lama’s main political advisors.

To know the nature of Van Walt’s advice to His Holiness one has to read his book The Status of Tibet. It is largely a resumé of Tibet’s history and legal status; that in conclusion, advocates Tibet giving up its sovereignty and becoming a part of China under the concept of “association”. This same exact term was used in the Strasbourg Proposal a couple of year later. Having graduated in international law, Van Walt does not lack legal gobbledegook to prop up his proposal. In all fairness, I am prepared to admit that such a subtle concept as “association” might probably work in Iceland, Switzerland, Austria and other countries that Van Walt mentions as examples in his book. But I do feel that it is too fine a concept for a tyranny such as China, where t54 tanks are used to squash those reckless enough to demand even a minimal accountability of their leaders.

Yet when all’s said and done, I really cannot blame Van Walt or other foreign advisors for our present state of affairs. Though in the past we made the mistake of being absolutely suspicious of all foreigners, it does not help things now to be absolutely trusting of them either. Tibetan national policies must be formulated by Tibetans to serve Tibetan interests; though these need not necessarily be narrow xenophobic ones. I am sure that any real friend of Tibet would not take offense if he or she were not consulted on matters of high policy, and would support the cause of an independent Tibet even if he or she were not officially appointed an advisor to the Dalai Lama.

If expert advice on whatever subject is needed by the Tibetan government (which it no doubt does) I, for one, would not hesitate to say that we should seek it from genuine experts elsewhere, if none are available from within the Tibetan community.

There are thousand of true supporters of the Tibetan cause all over the world, and it is in the interests of Tibetans to see that the contribution of these friends are not in the end misrepresented by the antics of a few “Lawrences” of Tibet, and washed-up Western politicians seeking lucrative sinecures by pandering to China.

August 1989, Tibetan Review

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