Robert Ford: Radio operator in Tibet who was jailed by China for being an ‘imperialist spy’

Before his arrest he kept in touch with his parents through a radio ham, a tailor called Jefferies

In 1950 Robert Ford was working for what was then independent Tibet to set up a radio network – the only Westerner to be employed as a civil servant in the country. When the Chinese invaded in 1950 he was arrested as an imperialist spy and spent five years in jail, enduring interrogations, isolation, false accusations of murder and brain-washing. After his release he entered the diplomatic service and took up postings in Europe, Asia and Africa, but Tibet and its people remained close to his heart and in retirement he was active in the Tibetan cause. He also published a memoir of his time in the country, Captured in Tibet.

Robert Ford was born in Rolleston-on-Dove in Staffordshire in 1923; his father was a train-driver at one of the breweries in Burton-on-Trent. Robert attended Alleyne’s Grammar School in Uttoxeter, but left at 16, eager to travel: “A safe white-collar job seemed the fate of most grammar-school boys in 1939, but I hated the idea of spending the rest of my life in a bank or office in Burton-on-Trent”.   

He joined the RAF and trained as a radio officer and was posted to Lahore and later Hyderabad as a sergeant instructor. Having missed front-line service in the war he leapt at the chance in 1945 to become radio officer at the British Mission in Lhasa – one of the most remote postings a Briton could aspire to. With the advent of Indian independence in 1947 he returned to Lhasa to work for the Tibet government – the first foreigner to be so employed. His job was to install three sets of radio equipment that had been given to the Tibetan government by President Roosevelt on the eastern border of Tibet with China.

In June 1949 Ford, accompanied by numerous animals and porters, set off on the two-month journey to Chamdo. Across the border in China the civil war between the nationalist Kuomingtang under General Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Tse-tung was being decided in Mao’s favour, and the nationalists withdrew to Formosa.

In Chamdo, Ford kept in touch with radio hams all over the world and, through a tailor named Jefferies, with his parents in Burton-on-Trent. Letters home took six weeks at best. Ford was an object of wonder for his fair complexion and light hair.

Five months into his new post, on 1 January 1950, Ford picked up an ominous message, that the victorious Communist PLA was planning to invade Tibet and “liberate” it from American and British imperialism. There were, in fact, no Americans in Tibet and only two Britons, the other being Reginald Fox, the radio operator in Lhasa. Ford, aware of the danger of his situation, courageously agreed to renew his contract.

A few days later he was arrested. To the Chinese he was a prized trophy, the only evidence they could ever adduce of a so-called imperialist spy. To further incriminate him they accused Ford of murdering a high-ranking lama. Geda Lama was himself, in fact, a Chinese stooge and  spy and as such was loathed by the Khambas of the area. It is likely that one of them poisoned him, but it was Ford who was charged with the murder. Torture and death seemed inevitable at the hands of a triumphant PLA.

At jails in Kandze and Chungking he was subjected to brainwashing, intense interrogation and long periods of solitary confinement;the Chinese refused to believe that he knew virtually nothing of British government policy and was not a spy. Kept in the dark, endlessly humiliated and tormented with thought-reform and re-education, Ford inevitably cracked in order to retain sanity. In a passage in his Captured in Tibet reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 Ford records the moment: “‘Imperialism is the cause of all wars,’ said Huang. ‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘I helped to cause fighting in Tibet by spreading separatist propaganda in order to further American and British imperialism.’” He had, of course, done nothing of the sort.

Some small relief came in Chungking when he discovered that the British missionary Geoffrey Bull occupied a neighbouring cell; they sang hymns together. Ford taught himself Chinese and caught beri-beri. In 1954 he was allowed for the first time to write to his parents. In December that year he was tried and sentenced to 10 years in jail but was told that in view of his “progress” the People’s Government had decided to deport him, although it was almost six more months before he was released across the border into Hong Kong. In Kandze in 1956 a monument was erected to Geda Lama stating that he was “murdered by the British spy, RW Ford”.

Back in England he worked as a freelance journalist in 1956 and married an old schoolfriend, Monica Tebbett, who was working for the UN in New York, and a year later Captured in Tibet was published. As with most British people resident in Tibet, Ford had been asked by Kew Gardens to send back samples of rare flowers. Calling in on his return seven years later he apologised with dry understatement: “This incident got in the way.” 

He took up a new career in the diplomatic service and served in Vietnam (1957), Indonesia (1959), Morocco (1967), Angola (1970), France (1974) and Sweden (1978), ending up as Consul General in Geneva. As a career diplomat he kept silent on Tibet but in retirement he was active in the Tibetan cause and was a vice-president of the Tibet Society and a trustee of a foundation dedicated to the education of Tibetans. He lectured widely on Tibet as he had experienced it before the Chinese took control. It was perhaps natural that a man who had been the victim of such injustice and lies should wish to assert the truth, as he saw it.

A lecture tour of India in 1992 was brought to an abrupt end when he and Monica were detained in Dharamsala; his tour had coincided with the visit to India of the Chinese Premier, Li Peng.

For a man of quiet but fierce integrity it was fitting that in 2013, shortly after his 90th birthday, Ford was presented with the Light of Truth Award in Fribourg, Switzerland, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for his contribution to the Tibetan cause.

Robert Webster Ford, RAF radio officer and diplomat: born Rolleston-on-Dove, Staffordshire 27 March 1923; married 1956 Monica Tebbett (died 2012; two sons); CBE 1982; died London 20 September 2013.

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