Although most exiles would consider Tibetan members of the Party to be merely collaborators, I felt that their position was more complex. Some, at least, were working within the system as away of defending the interests of Tibet. They were not altruists; it was a pragmatic and sometimes cynical decision, a career choice that brought them material benefits. But in the course of doing their job, they tried to develop and defend their homeland. Many were openly resentful that the key decisions about the running of Tibet were taken in Beijing, and that the Party Secretaryship, the top job, had never been held by a Tibetan.
The younger Tibetans who worked in the government did not seem very different from their Chinese counterparts in education or ambition. The generation that intrigued me was the next one up, people aged around fifty or sixty, who had been elevated on Mao’s instructions in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, solely on the basis of having a good “serf” background. Little was known about these officials, except that they would usually have been active Red Guards, and were installed in positions of authority in the late 1960s for ideological reasons, as part of the backlash against the old aristocracy. They were sometimes seen on state television, walking in and out of meeting rooms, but were rarely heard to speak. They had no popular power base, and no profile as individuals. Their importance lay in what they represented: impeccable, old-style proletarian credentials and open reliance on Beijing. Among Tibetans in Lhasa, this generation of cadres was perceived as ruthless, aggressive and stupid, and viewed with scorn and fear.
They were to be avoided, but I found myself among them, by chance, without realising what was happening. The men were paunchy bureaucrats in brown suits, v-neck jerseys, ties and soft shoes, and the women were dressed in skirts or chubas. Many of them wore dark glasses. They all looked drunk. These officials disliked the idea of me, a stranger and a foreigner, in their midst. I was not drinking alcohol, but they decided that I should have a glass of chang, or barley beer. I refused politely. They said it was the custom. I was caught in a crowd. One of the men grabbed the back of my head and shoved it forward, while another pushed a glass against my lips and poured liquid down my face and clothes. I wriggled free. They grabbed me and began again, this time with a glass of fruit spirit, angry now at being opposed. Some Chinese cadres intervened and extricated me, and we moved to another part of the park.
The Chinese were acutely embarrassed by what had happened, and apologetic about the disrespectful behaviour of their colleagues. I was shocked, but they were not. “Our Tibetan brothers always behave in this way, it is part of their culture,” they said with a smile—the Chinese smile of awkwardness and shame. I had never come across Tibetans like this before. Boisterous drinking and singing are popular Tibetan hobbies, part of the culture, but the difference here was the aggression, expressed towards a guest. The Chinese, from a younger generation than my Tibetan coercers, wore a look of pained apology, as if they were caught in a social trap from which there was no escape. They seemed to see the Tibetan cadres—who were tied to Mao and the damage he had done, with their immobile political position stemming from the chaotic aftermath of the Cultural Revolution—as Frankenstein’s monsters who had to be tolerated.
The Tibetan cadres reminded me of the “living dead” of pre-Buddhist Tibet. In the old times, when a king died, his loyal ministers and servants would move to a secluded place near his tomb. They were not permitted to be seen or spoken to by outsiders. Food and offerings would be left for them at the tomb, with a horn being blown by the living to warn them of their arrival. If a wandering yak or sheep happened to reach them, the living dead would brand it with a special mark, and it would be slaughtered and returned to them, unseen. Their separation from normal society continued until all of them had died.
These men and women were Mao’s living dead.