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Writer Offers a Different Take on Tibet

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Writer Offers a Different Take on Tibet


Writer Offers a Different Take on Tibet

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Protests and demonstrations have plagued the path of the Olympic torch on the way to this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. Many of the demonstrators in London, Paris and San Francisco this week have decried the human rights crimes of the Chinese government, and specifically the plight of Tibet, which has been under Chinese control since an invasion in 1950.

But Patrick French, the former director of the Free Tibet campaign in London and author of "Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land," argued in the New York Times that the Dalai Lama is a great spiritual figure but a poor political leader.

Mr. French joins us from our studios in London. Thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. PATRICK FRENCH (Former Director, Free Tibet Campaign; Author, "Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land"): Hi.

SIMON: The Dalai Lama, famously, admires Mahatma Ghandi and says he uses him as an inspiration for his movement. In your judgment, Mr. French, what did Ghandi get right that the Dalai Lama maybe has missed?

Mr. FRENCH: Well, you could argue that Ghandi had an easier opponent in that he was dealing with tail end of the British Empire. And crucially he was dealing with a democratic government in London. And so his theory, which applied to the British Empire, worked extremely well. Was that non-violent resistance, mass popular protests, would sooner or later cause people in London to change their policy.

But I think the great difficulty for the Dalai Lama is first that he didn't choose to be a political leader. He was somebody who was given a job at the tender age of three and clearly is an immensely spiritual and charismatic man. But I don't think he's a natural politician.

And his difficulty is he's up against a xenophobic, nationalist, communist leadership in Beijing, which isn't interested in protests by its own people, let alone protests by well meaning and idealistic people on the streets of San Francisco or London or Paris.

SIMON: You also suggested that some of the Hollywood and London celebrity contributors and supporters may have skewed the strategy.

Mr. FRENCH: One of the risks of the Hollywoodization of the Tibetan cause is that it has outraged and entrenched the Beijing regime. China is hugely sensitive because of what happened in the 19th century, the opium wars, the idea of being pushed around by foreign powers, to any sort of criticism from abroad.

SIMON: Prime Minister Brown of the U.K. and secretary-general of the U.N. both said they won't be attending the Olympics' opening ceremony. President Sarkozy of France has talked about the same thing. There are increasing calls for President Bush to do the same thing. Is this a sign of success of the protests or is every individual politician making that decision for his or her own political aggrandizement?

Mr. FRENCH: Well, I think it is a sign of the success of the protests. But has the lobbying by the prote(ph) of that movement in the West over the last 20 years yielded a single benefit for the Tibetans inside Tibet? And if not, is it maybe something that should be debated or reconsidered?

But in a way for an American or British or European politician, it's a risk-free thing to say you support Tibet and the Dalai Lama. It doesn't actually mean anything until somebody somehow manages to get the ear of the Chinese leadership and persuade them to change their policies.

SIMON: How does that get done? Is the Dalai Lama in a position to do that?

Mr. FRENCH: I don't think the Dalai Lama is any longer in a position to do that. There was a period in the 1980s when there was an attempt to kind of reach out to the Tibetans in exile. When, I think, there could have been a deal with the Dalai Lama.

But the terrible symmetry of what has happened in the last 20 years is that Hu Jintao, who as party secretary in the Tibetan autonomous region, was responsible for the brutal suppression of the 1987 and '88 riots. He is now the Chinese president. And he has, I think, quite a strong personal antipathy towards the Dalai Lama. I think that he will only concentrate in the coming months and years on further suppression of the Tibetan people.

SIMON: Patrick French speaking with us from our studios in London. Thanks very much.

Mr. FRENCH: Thank you.

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