The heart and soul of Peking's holy war

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The Search for the Panchen Lama by Isabel Hilton (Viking, £20)

The Search for the Panchen Lama by Isabel Hilton (Viking, £20)

JUST WHEN it seemed that colonisation was a thing of the past, the newly established and stridently anti-imperialist People's Republic of China snatched Tibet in 1950. On the map this was an extraordinary feat. In a few months 40,000 unwilling troops annexed a territory the size of France. Militarily, however, it was easy-peasy. Tibet hardly had a state, let alone a proper army to defend it. In so far as it was governed at all, its rulers were a mixture of lamas, serf-owning aristocrats and nomadic chieftains. Education was confined to Buddhist monasteries, health care was primitive and the country simply had no roads, cars or buses.

Peking's motive was its own security. The benefits of vast natural resources and lebensraum were later considerations. Along the Vietnamese and Burmese borders, remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists - the Kuomintang - still bristled. As long as Tibet remained unpacified, the risk was that this or some other hostile entity would launch a back-door invasion.

Peking could also plausibly argue that Tibet belonged within the Chinese orbit. A Chinese garrison had been intermittently maintained at Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, since the 18th century, and parts of greater Tibet had already been absorbed into China's western provinces.

That the Tibetan people have subsequently had a torrid time is not in question. Yet any careful assessment of recent Tibetan history should also inquire into the role played by the self-exiled 14th Dalai Lama, whose court at Dharmsala has perhaps inhibited the sort of leadership that could have turned Tibet into China's Afghanistan, forcing an eventual withdrawal.

The Dalai Lama is top dog in that Tolkienesque montage of superstition and magic known as Tibetan Buddhism. Like the Pope, he is to be addressed as "His Holiness", and he has become his nation's spokesman. In conversation he switches between near-shamanistic utterances and a well-groomed liberal discourse without batting an eyelid. Either he is as mad as a jaybird or he really does know something no one else does. Whichever, his blend of arcane custom and UN-charter speak has earned unique respect in the West.

At the heart of this may be an atavistic craving for the Bethlehem story, which, in the Tibetan doctrine of reincarnation, becomes indefinitely repeatable. For the Chinese authorities, however, it means double trouble. On the one hand, the Dalai Lama extends to his own people a potent spiritual hope out of all proportion to their circumstances. On the other, he invites moral support from precisely those outsiders that Peking perceives as its ideological enemies.

As Isabel Hilton skilfully documents, China's response has been inconsistent. Sometimes Peking, true to its Marxist-Leninist lights, pursues a "materialist" hard line, cracking down on all religion. At other times it endeavours to use Tibetan religiosity as a control mechanism. Suborn the lamas, the theory goes, and Tibet will fall into line. And if the same policy of allowing "tamed" monasteries to re-open encourages currency-earning tourism and a gloss that Peking is really quite tolerant of practices it thinks silly, then so much the better.

As her book's title proclaims, Hilton's subject is not the Dalai Lama so much as the Panchen Lama, number two in the Tantric pecking order and equally prone to rebirth. In 1989 the 10th Panchen died, apparently poisoned, triggering a quest to discover his reincarnation. In 1995 two candidate "soul boys" were divined, one by the Dalai Lama and the other by the Chinese politburo.

Since then both have been physically secured by Peking for its own ends. Just what an opera this has been The Search for the Panchen Lama makes wonderfully, and often painfully, clear. Although wanting as a historian of Tibet's remoter past, as a storyteller Hilton shines. She persuades the reader that the fate of a nation really does depend on theological intrigue of which the Vatican would be proud.

Of course, looming over her narrative is the eventual fate of the 15th Dalai Lama. Even though she routinely settles for a caricature of the Chinese position, that she also reconstructs a creditable and sympathetic life of the 10th Panchen - for long regarded as a Communist quisling - is likewise to her credit.

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