A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947

By Tsering Shakya

Columbia Univ. 574 pp. $24.95


The Abduction of the Panchen Lama

By Gilles Van Grasdorff

Element. 260 pp. $24.95


America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival

By John Kenneth Knaus

Public Affairs. 398 pp. $27.50

In the year 1720, two Qing Dynasty armies converged on the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and a new Dalai Lama, loyal to the Qing, was installed to replace the previous one, who had been murdered. Nearly three centuries later, the struggle continues over who are the rightful rulers of the mountainous Buddhist enclave at the roof of the world.

These days, the struggle is waged largely in the arena of international public opinion. The current, 14th Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has waged an effective campaign to gain sympathy for his people's quest to gain a measure of autonomy and religious freedom from the Chinese Communist Party, the latest of China's dynasties. Like many other causes that capture the imagination of the American public, the Tibetan struggle has brought us a plethora of protests, concerts, congressional resolutions, diplomatic discomforts and major motion pictures.

Objective histories have been in shorter supply. Like other great causes that stir public passions, the Tibetan struggle has been painted mostly in stark, contrasting colors with little space for nuance and detail.

In The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, Tsering Shakya seeks to counter the tendency to simplify the story of Tibet. Born there in 1959, the author fled with his family to India in 1967 after the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. Educated in England and a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, he has employed thorough research, a balanced view and a dispassionate tone in writing a tremendously informative, definitive history of his native land.

"Both the Chinese and the Tibetan authorities have vested interests in reducing the issue to simplistic terms," Shakya writes. To the Chinese, Tibet was "ravaged by feudal exploitation" before it was "liberated." To the Tibetans, Chinese Communist rule interrupted an idyllic period of independence and now threatens to eradicate Tibetan culture, belief and autonomy. "Both are part of political myth-making," Shakya writes, "in which these powerful symbols are invoked to justify and legitimize the claims of the proponents." In the process, he says, both sides have denied substantial parts of Tibetan history.

Shakya picks up the story of Tibet in 1947, with the independence of India and the end of British imperial influence in the region. Two years later, the Chinese Communist defeated the Chinese Nationalists and declared their intention to "reunify the Motherland," including Tibet. In the best of circumstances, Tibet, sparsely populated and largely nomadic, would have found it difficult to resist the will of Beijing and its immense People's Liberation Army. But Shakya describes a Tibet that was also hampered by its own internal strife. The Panchen Lama felt rivalry with the Dalai Lama. The 13th Dalai Lama was frustrated in his modernization plans by a conservative religious elite and Tibetan aristocracy. The people in eastern Tibet were at odds with the people in central Tibet. Communications were primitive.

When China pressed to reestablish control of the territory, Tibet's internal strains worsened. One factor was the youth and inexperience of the 14th Dalai Lama, who was a teenager when the Communists took over China. As both religious and political leader, the Dalai Lama failed to provide clear direction for much of the crucial 1950s, when Tibetans were trying to decide between compromise and active resistance. In futile efforts to conciliate China, the Dalai Lama ousted two popular political leaders, gave up independence and accepted a disadvantageous agreement with Beijing.

China, for its part, showed skill in playing off Tibetan rivals, wooing collaborators and extracting agreements from Tibetan leaders. But while Chinese leader Mao Zedong spoke of the need to go slow and win over the hearts of Tibetans, China ruled with a heavy hand. Faced with resistance in the east, it slaughtered Tibetan soldiers and bombed monasteries in the 1950s. It placed a burden on the impoverished region by stationing bureaucrats and soldiers there. Its economic campaigns failed miserably. And during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards smashed sacred statues and stole relics from temples and monasteries.

The limited reaction of the international community makes for interesting reading in light of today's penchant for humanitarian-driven interventionism. In the 1950s, India's Jawaharlal Nehru was loath to incur Beijing's wrath over Tibet. The United States, through the CIA, provided aid to Tibetan guerrillas, but didn't make a sufficient diplomatic or military commitment to shake China's control. The Dalai Lama had trouble finding any country willing to even raise Tibet's plight at the United Nations. The Tibetans were international orphans.

Shakya also provides texture to well-known figures and events. He describes how an apparently false rumor that the Chinese were going to kidnap the Dalai Lama led to the 1959 Tibetan uprising and the Dalai Lama's flight to India. He describes the later, secret negotiations between Beijing and one of the Dalai Lama's brothers, and the role another brother played in the CIA effort. Shakya also provides a more complete description of Ngabo Ngawang Jigme Shape, who collaborated with the Communists and who was portrayed as one of the main villains in the film version of "Seven Years in Tibet." Shakya also gives a relatively sympathetic description of the late Panchen Lama. Though derided by many Tibetans as Beijing's lama (see below), the late Panchen Lama ultimately paid dearly for his 70,000-character critique of Mao's policies in the early 1960s and for his refusal to renounce the critique during the Cultural Revolution.

Ultimately, the reader is left with a sense of tragedy. Isolated from the rest of the world, Tibet has been simply overwhelmed by the superior force of China. The Dalai Lama appears to have made genuine efforts at reconciliation, most notably accepting Tibet as part of China. In the early 1980s, with the new policies of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his premier Hu Yaobang, it looked as though an accord with the Dalai Lama might be possible. But even the enlightened Hu proved inflexible on some key points, and with his ouster in 1987 the prospects for a settlement dimmed. In March 1989, on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising, Tibet was rocked by the largest anti-Chinese demonstrations in 30 years. Scores, perhaps hundreds, were killed and Beijing imposed martial law.

Unlike Shakya, Gilles Van Grasdorff has no intention of delivering a dispassionate history in his book, Hostage of Beijing: The Abduction of the Panchen Lama. A journalist, Van Grasdorff says he was outraged in 1995 when Beijing detained the 6-year-old boy recognized by Tibetan religious leaders as the new incarnation of the Panchen Lama who had died in 1989. Beijing handpicked its own 6-year-old Panchen Lama, putting him in the care of party-vetted teachers.

"I wanted to write this book to denounce further interference by Chinese communists in a purely Tibetan issue" and to "denounce Beijing's shameful behavior towards a child," Van Grasdorff explains. He invokes the Nazis in asking what would have happened 50 years ago if nobody heard calls for help. "Beijing's totalitarianism is well known," he writes. "Human rights stand for nothing in the former empire."

Despite the title, most of the book is a history of Tibetan lamas that takes place long before the 1995 Panchen Lama dispute. He attempts to be more vivid than Shakya does in describing personalities and scenes. However, he sometimes imputes motives and thoughts, and paints details that seem less solid than the material presented by Shakya. One can't help wondering if some drama has been added when he describes one of China's late senior leaders, Chen Yi, as having "proudly beat his chest" or "clenching his fists" and "pounding the pale red carpet." In describing a 1962 meeting between the late Panchen Lama and advisers, Van Grasdorff says that "at this point the Panchen Lama suddenly recalled his childhood."

A more worthwhile and enjoyable companion volume for Shakya's book would be Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival, written by former CIA agent John Kenneth Knaus and published earlier this year. Though his request for CIA archives was never granted, Knaus has relied on his own recollections, interviews with other participants and other diplomatic documents to write a compelling account of the CIA efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to support Tibetan guerrillas -- and harass the Communist government in China.

With the help of one of the Dalai Lama's brothers, the CIA recruited Tibetans, trained them at secret camps in Colorado and dropped them back into Tibet. Ultimately, of 49 men dropped into Tibet starting in 1957, only 12 survived and two of those were captured and served long prison terms. But the agency continued its support for guerrillas based in Nepal, providing money and air drops over the strenuous objections of the State Department and the U.S. ambassador to India.

Knaus, who spent four decades as an operations officer, writes well and with feeling for the Tibetans with whom he worked. He blames the CIA's failure not on logistics but on the basic concept of the operation. "The idea of using Mao's own tactics against him had great appeal," Knaus writes. In reality, however, Mao had operated from a secure base and benefited from disarray among Nationalist forces. The CIA also underestimated China's capability and willingness to commit large numbers of troops and aircraft to wipe out the Tibetan resistance, Knaus says. Moreover, the CIA had little knowledge about Tibet's topography or people. Virtually none of the CIA officers had ever been to Tibet. "There was also a certain operational hubris," he adds. "Once underway, an operation like this acquires a psychological and bureaucratic momentum that is difficult to stop. Preserving the operation becomes an objective in itself."

Ultimately, however, the CIA abandoned its effort, and shortly afterwards the United States established ties with Beijing. Once again, Tibet was left out of the great game of diplomacy -- in Knaus's words "the worthy but hapless orphans of the Cold War." According to Knaus, skeptics who attribute U.S. government interest in Tibet to "Hollywood's rediscovery of Shangri-La" do a disservice to "the Tibetans who have fought with valor and integrity for the cause, and to the Americans who have supported it with a mix of motives and constancy." He urges the Clinton administration to pressure China to reach a settlement in Tibet with the Dalai Lama to fulfill a U.S. obligation.

"It would," he writes, "alleviate the guilt some of us feel over our participation in these efforts, which cost others their lives, but which were the prime adventure of our own."

Steven Mufson, who covers foreign policy for The Washington Post, was the paper's Beijing correspondent from 1994-98.