Tibetans were once fabled warriors. Their empire, at the summit of its power in the eighth century, extended to northern India, western China and central Asia. The Arabs, making inroads into central Asia, were in awe of them. And China, according to an inscription commissioned to memorialise Tibet’s conquest of the Tang Chinese capital of Changan in 763, ‘shivered with fear’ at their mention. But the Tibet annexed by Mao Zedong in the 20th century bore no trace of its imperial past.
When the People’s Liberation Army struck in 1950, Tibet, having metamorphosed over a millennium into a reclusive hagiarchy, possessed neither the vocabulary to parley with the communists nor the strength to resist them. Its response to this worldly threat was to retreat into ritual. A 15-year-old boy called Tenzin Gyatso, identified some years before as the 14th Dalai Lama, was hastily confirmed as Tibet’s supreme ruler. His delegation to Beijing the following year signed away Tibet’s sovereignty without consulting him. What ensued was a protracted act of gratuitous savagery. Mao called it ‘liberation’. Monasteries were razed, monks executed, thousands of nonviolent protesters massacred, and many thousands more detained, starved, tortured, uprooted and carted away to communes to toil in conditions so severe that some resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. In 1959, the Dalai Lama, facing imminent capture, escaped to India.
At no point in their history, the influential Tibetan author Tragya, who publishes under the pen name Shokdung (‘wake-up call’), writes in The Division of Heaven and Earth, were Tibetans made to endure such sustained misery. Swiftly banned by the Chinese Communist party when it was first published in Tibet in 2008, the book is now available for the first time in English. It is a haunting indictment of China’s colonial project in Tibet, and if the charges contained in it are so bruising for Beijing, it is because the person making them was not long ago regarded by the CCP as a fellow traveller. Shokdung attained notoriety in the 1990s for his attacks on Tibet’s religious ‘tumour of ignorance’. Beijing immediately sought to co-opt him.
The uprising of 2008, when thousands of Tibetans streamed into the streets demanding an end to Chinese occupation and the return of the Dalai Lama, upended Shokdung’s world. China expelled journalists from Tibet and set its military loose on the protesters. It was a bloodbath. Witnessing the crackdown with increasing self-revulsion from his office in a state-run publishing house, Shokdung arrived at the conclusion that what Tibetans lacked was not the will but a political philosophy suited to their conditions. Here, he advances Gandhi as the model for Tibetan resistance.
Shokdung makes a powerful case. But can Gandhi really save Tibet? George Orwell once disappointed pacifists by saying that Gandhian tactics of nonviolent non-cooperation would not have worked against the Soviet Union. The same is true of China. As Shokdung himself concedes, ‘The British rulers of India had some degree of moral conscience’. Gandhi had tea with George V. The Dalai Lama had to flee Mao in heavy disguise.
Tibet today enjoys virtually no meaningful external support. The liberal assumption that the West was more likely to influence China by making concessions to its rulers has proved to be a self-wounding fantasy. Far from moulding China’s behaviour, it is the West that has incrementally surrendered to Beijing. Today, western authors self-censor for the tawdry privilege of being published in China; Hollywood modifies its films to placate the CCP, and governments that never tire of puffing their chests at the Middle East’s tinpot tyrannies abase themselves before Beijing.
China, emboldened by the display of deference, continues remorselessly to disfigure the hypnotically beautiful plateau. In official documents, Tibet, a source of prized minerals and hydrocarbons, is classified as ‘Water Tower Number One’. More than 140 Tibetans have immolated their own bodies in protest at China’s plunder of their natural resources. No government has the moral courage to mourn them.
Shokdung recognises the isolated position of Tibetans. His Gandhian prescription, whether it succeeds or not, has the merit of being self-reliant. Shokdung has been jailed for defying the CCP. His family continues to be harassed. Meanwhile, copies of his book circulate underground in Tibet. Tibet’s overlords are evidently terrified. If Shokdung, an intellectual moulded by China’s ideological schools, can turn so abruptly hostile,
what hope does Beijing have of controlling others?
This remarkable book, written to fortify the Tibetan spirit against the assaults of colonialism, has already performed an important service by exposing the fragility of China’s hold on the Tibetan mind.