From verifiable sources, you can learn much about the Tibetan empire of the seventh and eighth centuries, or the history of particular monasteries, rulers or Buddhist lineages. What has disappeared for those inside Tibet is the link between the past and the present. This link has been broken systematically by the imposition of an alien political ideology, exported from industrial Europe, and the physical destruction of texts and objects. The effect of the period of mental cleansing—which was at its most intrusive in the 1950s and sixties—has been to kill the processes of thought and memory that define a society, and enable the people within it to communicate and interact. This rupture has left those in Tibet, both Tibetans and Chinese, in a state of something like atrophy. As Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote in Hope Against Hope, her memoir of Stalin’s terror, “An existence like this leaves its mark. We all became slightly unbalanced mentally—not exactly ill, but not normal either: suspicious, mendacious, confused and inhibited.”
It was only towards the end of my time in Tibet in the fall of 1999 that I came to understand the extent of the abnormality. The Lhasa hotel I was staying in, the Raidi, was under surveillance. There was nothing peculiar about that. I had been in the Tibet Autonomous Region for too long, and try as I might, the places I went to and the people I met prevented me from seeming the tourist I claimed to be. So there were men, Chinese men in double-breasted suits, who came to the hotel each day and asked questions and examined my room when I was not there. A man with a wide-brimmed hat sat in the window of the shop opposite, watching people going in and out of the hotel.
All this I could accept, although it made me sick with tension. What shocked me was the discovery, a little later, that the smiling, joking Tibetan receptionist, barely out of her teens, with whom I chatted casually most days, was working for the PSB, the Public Security Bureau. I was told that she was required to report foreign tourists who behaved suspiciously: if they met the wrong sort of people, if they spoke Tibetan, if they had professional-standard film cameras, if they knew too much. She did not want the job. Her father had been compromised by the PSB over a minor irregularity; she had no choice but to do it.
To Tibetans in Lhasa, none of this seemed strange. It was how things worked. Anyone, even a member of your family, might be betraying you. Most of the betrayers betrayed not for political or financial gain, but because they felt they had no alternative.
Sounds like the Romania I experienced in 1983–84.
POSTSCRIPT: French’s acknowledgments (p. 295) reveal a writer’s subtle revenge.
I owe a great and lasting debt to the friends, interpreters, contacts and facilitators in Tibet and China who helped me when I was doing the research and interviews for this book. Since they cannot be identified, I felt it would be wrong to name the many people elsewhere who, while often extremely generous with their knowledge, did not risk their livelihood or their safety to assist me. I would however like to mention the Public Security Bureau chiefs serving at county level in the Tibet Autonomous Region in 1992 (as listed in Conner and Barnett, pp. 68-83) who have, without being asked, lent their names to several people in these pages, enabling them to remain anonymous.