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On Top of the World

THE DRAGON IN THE LAND OF SNOWS: The History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, By Tsering Shakya, Columbia University Press: 574 pp., $34 ORPHANS OF THE COLD WAR: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival, By John Kenneth Knaus, PublicAffairs: 396 pp., $27.50 THE CIA'S SECRET WAR IN TIBET, By Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, University Press of Kansas: 302 pp., $34.95 INTO TIBET: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa, By Thomas Laird Grove Press: 364 pp., $26

June 30, 2002|ORVILLE SCHELL | Orville Schell is the author of, most recently, "Virtual Tibet: The Search for Shangri-La: From Hollywood to the Himalayas" and is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Rarely has there been a remote land more freighted with meaning for the West than Tibet. Not only has it long been redolent of the utopian mythology of Shangri-La but since 1949 and the communist victory on the Chinese mainland, it has also become steeped in a different and more bitter mythos, one that has grown out of the reality of occupation; the flight of its leader, the Dalai Lama, to India; political repression; and the subsequent struggle of a valiant traditional people to maintain its cultural identity and regain some measure of autonomy, not to say independence.

This sad tale of conquest, misunderstanding, prevarication and loss has involved the United States, Britain, India and China as they tried to reconcile lofty principles about human rights, self-determination, religious freedom and independence with more practical imperatives of national self-interest. But like a dramatic narrative interrupted by lost parts of the story, Tibet's tragic progress into the modern world has until recently been missing whole chapters. Outsiders knew little about the policy debates that went on among China's leaders. And, we knew little more than the murky outlines of our own relationship with the Dalai Lama's government in exile and its covert operations to thwart China's "peaceful liberation" of Tibet.

This gap in our knowledge meant that, whatever we may have thought about Beijing's claim that Tibet was an inalienable part of "the sacred Chinese motherland," it was difficult to appraise Tibetan resistance. Was it an independent mouse that roared by standing up alone against a colonial superpower? Or was it a creature of the Cold War that in some ways may have justified China's allegations that it was fomented by a conspiracy of foreign imperialists and domestic reactionaries, justifying Beijing's savage intervention and repressive rule?

This lacuna has begun to be filled in the last few years by a host of books that have helped draw back the curtain on what turns out to have been an elaborate ballet of big power choreography.

As Mao Tse-tung came to power in China in 1949, he dispatched Marshal Liu Bocheng and his longtime political commissar, Deng Xiaoping, to China's Southwest Military Region "to liberate our compatriots in Tibet ... and bring that mountainous land of lamas back into the Chinese family," a land which even Chiang Kai-shek viewed as part of a multiethnic China. But, having enjoyed almost complete independence from Chinese control since 1911 and having been accustomed to viewing itself as politically independent, culturally different, linguistically and ethnically distinct and geographically separate from China, the Tibetan government under the leadership of the teenage 14th Dalai Lama resisted, belatedly trying to break out of its traditional isolation to win international support for de facto, if not de jure, independence.

Tsering Shakya's "The Dragon in the Land of Snows: The History of Modern Tibet Since 1947" and John Kenneth Knaus' "Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival" are superbly well-researched and written books that show that Lhasa's early resistance found virtually no outside supporters. A deep-seated wariness about antagonizing a rigid and intractable China had already begun to establish itself in the post-World War II world. Britain, which had given the Raj its independence in 1947 and was eager to recognize China, wanted no part of a complicated Tibetan imbroglio. ("Politically, I have no doubt at all that what we want to do is to create a situation which does not oblige us in practice to do anything about the Communist invasion of Tibet," British U.N. representative Sir Gladwyn Jebb wrote in 1950.)

India, which under Jawaharlal Nehru was seeking to befriend the new "people's republic" as an ally in its "nonaligned world" under the doctrine of Panch Sheel, or the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence, also had no stomach for antagonizing revolutionary China. (Nehru suggested Mao might simply be occupying Tibet because of some errant information about "Anglo-American intrigues.") And the United States, despite an effusion of Cold War rhetoric about democracy and opposition to "communist aggression" ("Every feasible effort should be made to hinder the Commie occupation," trumpeted the State Department) was finally ambivalent about crossing India and overcommitting itself to a struggle in a remote and hostile territory. As the American ambassador to New Delhi, Loy Henderson, justly argued, "It would be unfair for the U.S. to take any action that might encourage them [the Tibetans] to resist because of a mistaken idea of help from the U.S."

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