In 1944 Heinrich Harrer escaped from an Indian PoW camp and trekked over the Himalayas into Tibet. The Tibetans — a hospitable people under enlightened rulers — made him welcome and employed him in civil engineering tasks.
Harrer fell in love with the country, as everybody did, and stayed seven years, until the Chinese annexation. He became fluent in Tibetan, travelled everywhere, and made friends with every Tibetan of importance, as well as many of the common people.
The Tibet that Harrer knew was a most remarkable place. Its culture was rooted in a subtle and tolerant religion whose first principle was profound reverence for all living things. Harrer recorded that when supervising construction of a dam, work had to be stopped each time an earthworm was uncovered so that the creature might be carefully set on a shovel and carried to safety. The country was governed rather like medieval England, by a union of meritocratic church and landed nobility.
It was not to be expected that Tibet’s culture would survive intact through the 20th century, but it is a hideous irony that the agent of modernisation in this most spiritual of countries should have been China — a nation with no spiritual values at all.
There was never any hope of compromise between Tibetan piety and the sterile materialism of the conquerors. Understanding nothing but power and money, the Chinese considered the Tibetans to be the ignorant dupes of an absurd superstition. They were, and are, baffled by this gallant people’s refusal to throw away their prayer wheels and embrace the delights of Chinese civilisation — cinemas, concrete dormitories, and the banal fortune-cookie mottoes of “Mao Tse Tung Thought”. Vexed by Tibetan stubbornness, they bombed the monasteries, massacred the priests and bulldozed the flower gardens.
In 1982 Harrer revisited Tibet, or rather the rubble of Tibet, as a tourist. This heart-breaking book is the record of what he found. Along with observations, reminiscences, interviews with surviving Tibetans (including the Dalai Lama — one of the few people I wouldn’t mind being ruled by) and thoughtful speculations on the future, Harrer has provided dozens of photographs showing the serene Tibet that was and the tin-roofed desolation that has replaced it.
The free world’s response to the rape of Tibet has been to pass by on the other side. In part this indifference has been encouraged by the incorruptible good nature of the Tibetans. They have produced no Yasser Arafat. It is a dismal thing to say, but Tibetans are the best refugees in the world. Industrious, adaptable, innocent of self-pity, they argue their case in reasoned statements to anyone who will listen — with the result that nobody listens.
This is a pity; not only for the Tibetans, but for our statesmen, who have missed an opportunity to educate themselves in the fathomless treachery and mendacity of the Chinese government. The consequences will be played out in due course in Hong Kong and Taiwan.