It was a lively, colourful throng that made its way to Lafayette Park in Washington DC last Thursday, to protest the arrival, in the capital of the world's most powerful democracy, of the president of the world's most populous totalitarian state. There were Vighurs from East Turkistan, and Mongolians in blue satin robe. There were middle-aged Chinese from Silicon Valley, Jimi Hendrix-era peaceniks and grunge fans in Vans shoes with studs in their tongues. Everywhere, there were Tibetans: young men from Nepal or Darjeeling, dressed in the traditional woollen shawl known as a chuba, girls from the foothills of Mount Everest, dressed in elaborate satin dresses. They had come, by bus, from Chicago, New York and Boston. And as Jiang Zemin sipped champagne across the street in the White House, they shouted, "Shame on China!" and waved the blue, red and gold flag of Tibet.
On a makeshift stage in the centre of the park, heavy hitters from Congress and the Senate mingled with members of the Beltway aristocracy, such as Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, daughter of RFK Jnr, and now married to the son of New York's former governor Mario Cuomo. With them were Chinese dissidents, such as Harry Wu, the veteran human rights campaigner; and an eclectic trio of celebrities. Adam Yauch, of The Beastie Boys and founder of the Milarepa Fund, a charity dedicated to the Tibetan cause, was there. As was that ubiquitous politico-groupie, Bianca Jagger.
But of all the people at the "Let Freedom Ring" event, none was so eagerly anticipated, or so well received, as the actor Richard Gere. Dressed in a long black Versace jacket, black T-shirt and black jeans, he proceeded to denounce Jiang Zemin. "Don't think this is some cuddly new Chinese administration," he called from the podium, "because it's not! It is the same government that has been oppressing the people of Tibet for 50 years! And that's got to stop!"
Gere is 48. With his spectacles and lean, middle-aged face, he looks like a lecturer in semiotics at one of our trendier universities. After a short speech, he introduced a frail old Tibetan woman called Ama Adhi, who had spent 17 years in a Tibetan jail, where she was tortured, raped and beaten by the Chinese. Raising her hands over her head in a traditional gesture of humility, she said: "Phur ki ranzen changma yi", which, translated, means: "The freedom of Tibet is pure." Several Tibetans around me wept openly.
Gere first discovered Tibet when (ironically) he was invited to visit China by the government of Deng Xiao Ping in 1983. At the time he had just shot the film Breathless, in which he played a sleazy car thief. Before that he had played a kung-fu-fighting Sir Lancelot in First Knight. But it was his 1980 film The American Gigolo, in which he played a male hooker called Julian Kay, that fixed Gere in the world's imagination as Hollywood's lushest toyboy. An American Gigolo in Shangri-La? Was there a Pauline moment of conversion amid snow-capped peaks? We don't know. What we do know is that Gere travelled throughout the Himalayas, photographing as he went (a book of his photographs, Tibet: The Pure Realm, was published in America in 1995, with signed prints offered at $12,500 each) and that he found in Tibet a people desperately in need of the world's help.
"It became clear to me that the situation for the Tibetans was worsening," he told the New York Times earlier this year. "And they had no public voice, no contact with the media, no presence at the United Nations. They had been gobbled up by the Chinese and had no protector."
In Buddhist teachings a bodhisattva is a person who, out of compassion, gives up the chance of nirvana to save others. Nirvana was probably never on the cards for Richard Gere, but since that first trip in 1983 he has devoted much time, and money, to protecting the people of Tibet. In 1986, along with Robert Thurman, America's leading expert on Tibetan Buddhism (and father to Uma), he became one of the five founding members of Tibet House in New York, a cultural centre dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan religion and culture. Later he joined the Board of the Washington- based International Campaign, a lobbying group with close ties to the Tibetan government in exile. He has given large amounts of money to both institutions. He has also funded a publishing house, Wisdom Publications, whose mission is to publish the works of the Dalai Lama. Like other Tibetan Buddhists, he believes passionately in "the middle way", the philosophy of non-violent political action which is at the core of the Dalai Lama's teachings. But he has no illusions about his own importance to the Tibetan movement. The real heroes, as he told Lafayette Park, are people like Ama Adhi. He regards himself, as the Tibetans regard him, as a catalyst for awareness.
Unlike other Tibet supporters in Shangri-LA, such as Pierce Brosnan and Harrison Ford, Gere is also a committed Buddhist. For the last 12 years he has made regular trips to Dharmsala, the hill-top town in the Indian Himalayas where the Tibetan government in exile is based, to receive enlightenment at the hands of the Dalai Lama himself. Indeed it could be said that it was Tibetan Buddhism that broke up Gere's marriage to Cindy Crawford. Crawford, a material girl if ever there was one, preferred more worldly pleasures and resented having to share her husband's time and affections with the Dalai Lama.
According to a story I heard in the Himalayas last November it was not only enlightenment that Gere found in Dharmsala. In 1992 Gere and Crawford helicoptered into a remote part of north-eastern India, on the Tibetan border, to witness the Dalai Lama hold a kalashakra, an ancient Tibetan ceremony which can be compared to the Pope arriving to dedicate a new church. Gere and Crawford stayed for the afternoon and then, because there were no hotels in the area, helicoptered back to Delhi. Crawford left for the States. Gere went alone to Dharmsala.
The following year he took the world by surprise when he hijacked the Oscars ceremony to denounce the Chinese government's policy in Tibet. "If you are listening, Deng Xiao Ping," he called to a sea of diamonds. If there was one thing you could be sure of it was that the paramount leader of the People's Republic was not watching the Oscars.
Gere's peers were; and the actor was bluntly told he would never host Tinseltown's awards ceremony again. Surprisingly, it has not hurt his career. With 25 films to his credit, including such minor classics as Sommersby with Jodie Foster, An Officer and a Gentleman with Debra Winger and the mega-hit Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts, he remains one of Hollywood's most bankable leading men. With Red Corner, a thriller about an American businessman who gets caught up in a murder investigation, which has just been released in America, Gere is finally dove-tailing the two dominant concerns of his life. Set in Jiang Zemin's China, and co-starring the Chinese actress Bai Ling, the film takes the audience on a journey through China's totalitarian judicial system. "We made as tough a movie as we possibly could make," he said last week. "And ... a very political one."
The film is the second of three big-budget films to have come out in what Hollywood has dubbed "The Year of the Yak". The first was Jean-Jacques Arnaud's epic about Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, which is about to open in Britain after playing to a mixed reception in the States. The third, due out in December, is Martin Scorsese's biography of the early years of the Dalai Lama, Kundun.
Melissa Mathison-Ford, wife of Harrison, and scriptwriter on Kundun, was one of several celebrity guests at the "Stateless Dinner", held on the top floor of the elegant Washington Hotel on Thursday evening as an alternative to the corporate feeding frenzy (aka state dinner) given for Jiang Zemin at the White House. "Tibet offers the most extravagant expression of the mystical," she told me. "And when people meet His Holiness, you can see on their faces that they're hoping to get this hit that will transcend their lives, take them someplace else."
But, once again, it was Richard Gere who caused the greatest buzz. Dressed in the same black leather jacket, he came on to the stage and, after a few pleasantries, told a story. It was about a Tibetan nun he had met who, along with a group of her fellow nuns, had held up a placard saying "Free Tibet" in their monastery. "They were immediately arrested, along with all the other women in the convent," Gere recounted. "They were taken to a police station, stripped naked and tortured and beaten. They were hung by ropes tied behind their backs; and several of them were raped with electric cattle-prods. I asked her, 'How can you handle this? How do you feel about this?' And she looked into herself, and she looked out, and she said: 'It's so much bigger than me, so much bigger than these events'."
The tragedy of Tibet is also so much bigger than Richard Gere. And that is the problem. No one can deny that he has done an enormous amount to bring the Tibetan cause to the world's attention. But tragedy is not his metier. Melodrama is. In Red Corner he turns in a great performance, delivering lines such as "You put a nice drop cloth down here and you put a bullet right in the back of my head. Bam! Right in the back of my head! Bam, bam, bam, bam!" But Tibet is no thriller. And when he speaks about it, however much he looks inside, Gere never seems to be quite able to find the right tone. The gravitas.
That doesn't worry Bob Thurman. "The press says it is cheapening, and a fad, to have people from Hollywood speaking on behalf of Tibet," he told me. "But the truth is Americans listen to what celebrities do; and Richard has been a tremendous asset to the Tibetan cause."
And though it is easy to be derisive of the fact that it has fallen to Richard Gere to be America's conscience about Tibet, the real object of our derision, as the veteran New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd pointed out this week, should be the politicians and corporate moguls who spent last week bending the knee to the last Communist emperor. Compared with them, Richard Gere is, indeed, a bodhisattva.
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