All Discussions Regarding Tibet and Its Struggle for Autonomy to Be Discussed Here. God Speed. The view from the roof of the world It's 50 years since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, and in that time a romanticised western vision of his country has flourished. But, argues Patrick French, it has done little to help the cause of those left behind The Himalayan region of Tibet has long held a particular fascination for the western mind. When the Dalai Lama made good his daring escape into exile in 1959, crossing the Himalayas while the People's Liberation Army followed in hot pursuit, Tintin in Tibet was about to be published, and the remote land of snow peaks and deities, yaks and yetis, forbidden cities and flying lamas was already well known through the writings of mystics such as Madame Blavatsky, Alexandra David-Néel and T Lobsang Rampa, author of the bestseller The Third Eye. (Rampa was later unmasked as a surgical truss manufacturer from Devon named Cyril Hoskin.) Convinced that Tibet was the fountain of "Indo-Germanic" racial purity, Heinrich Himmler had sent a number of exploratory expeditions there and, on a single trip, Nazi ethnographers took 60,000 photographs, mainly of baffled Tibetans with good "Aryan" cheekbones. With the flight of the Dalai Lama and many important lamas into exile, Tibetan Buddhism gained new followers in the United States and western Europe in the 60s and 70s, as the half-understood precepts of a complex religious tradition opened doors for those who were in search of a fresh spiritual direction. The Tibetan refugees, in their turn, found financial and social possibilities available to them through the export of their culture that would not have been obtainable in any other way. In Dharamsala, the little Indian hill town where the Dalai Lama made his headquarters, there is still tension between local men and the Tibetan exiles, who easily attract the eyes of visiting westerners. The underlying reason for the popularity of abstract Tibet may have been the assumption that a pure, isolated place on the roof of the world must have harmonious mystical methods that are lost or undiscovered in more regular post-industrial societies. So when Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality or Kate Hudson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days wish to bring calm back in to their lives, they instinctively namecheck the Dalai Lama. Even Harry Angstrom, the boorish American everyman in the Rabbit novels written by the recently departed John Updike, says: "The only country over there I've ever wanted to go to is Tibet. I can't believe I won't make it." Half a century after the uprising that led to the Dalai Lama's departure, this ethereal perception of Tibet has been updated with our knowledge of the tragedy of communist rule, and in particular the immense damage done during the Great Leap Forward in the late 50s and the Cultural Revolution, unleashed in 1966. Living in exile, the 14th Dalai Lama is still seen as the face and voice of the Tibetans but, more emotively, he is a religious leader with a huge appeal to people of no definite religious belief. With his quirky humour and sermons conducted in broken English in which he emphasises love and compassion, he can reach across borders and draw enormous crowds. But 50 years after his flight, Tibet remains under the rule of Beijing and the Dalai Lama still faces the same quandary that he discussed with the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as soon as he reached New Delhi in 1959: how do you influence a country as large and as powerful as China, and is western support for his campaign for Tibetan freedom anything more than gesture politics? Nehru's view was that American and European support for the Dalai Lama's cause was insincere, and that if the Dalai Lama went to the west in the hope of drumming up political enthusiasm, he would "look like a piece of merchandise". Since the early 90s, negotiations between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government have been stalled. In earlier centuries - when it took several months for a messenger to travel between the Tibetan capital Lhasa and Beijing - it was possible for Tibet and China to have a working, symbiotic relationship without China's nominal power disturbing Tibet's distinctive cultural identity. But when the Dalai Lama was born in 1935 in a region controlled by a Chinese Muslim warlord, Tibet was in a vulnerable position. Attempts by the 13th Dalai Lama to introduce reforms had fallen foul of monastic conservatives, and with a civil war raging in China, it was possible to postpone the day of reckoning. For most practical purposes, the country was in control of its own affairs. A search party was sent to locate the nation's new ruler. They saw a house with a roof of turquoise tiles, which matched a building seen by a monk in a dream, and inside was a little boy named Lhamo Dhondrub who recognised a rosary and drum belonging to the late Dalai Lama. This was taken as proof that he must be his reincarnation: so he was taken to Lhasa and enthroned. It was a unique and lonely childhood for the Dalai Lama, living at the top of the Potala palace and being trained in Buddhist dialectics and ritual by scholarly monks. When the communists won the civil war in China in 1949 and set about capturing territory over which they believed Beijing had a historical claim, the teenage Dalai Lama was obliged to take up temporal power. Initially, he and his advisers thought Chairman Mao Zedong's revolutionary reforms would bring progress and prosperity, and for nearly 10 years the Tibetan government co-existed with the invaders - a decade that has now been largely eradicated from popular history. But by 1959 and the start of the Great Leap Forward, as monasteries were destroyed and social structures undermined, the population of eastern Tibet rose up against communist rule, and the Dalai Lama escaped. In exile in India and Nepal, it was necessary for refugees from across the wide Tibetan plateau to bond together and establish a common identity. United by their reverence for the person of the Dalai Lama, these displaced people with different dialects and customs tried to unite and put regional and sectarian differences to one side. They acquired the structures and symbols that foreign supporters had told them would be helpful to emphasise the notion of nationhood; a song written by the Dalai Lama's tutor Trijang Rinpoche was adopted as Tibet's national anthem, and a regimental banner featuring blue and red stripes and a pair of snow lions became the national flag. Over the coming years, as more children were born in exile, they were imbued with a sense of their own Tibetanness through the system of schooling set up in refugee settlements by the government-in-exile. Many of the current younger generation of pro-Tibet activists have never been to the country that they consider home. When new arrivals escape across the Himalayas today, often enduring desperate journeys, they usually have trouble assimilating: the exiles consider their behaviour, language and cultural reference points to be "too Chinese". I spent the summer and autumn of 1999 in Tibet and its border areas covertly interviewing people from all sides of the political and ethnic divide, sometimes through a translator. By the end of this process, I began to see quite how complicated the situation was for Tibetans inside Tibet. Restricted from knowledge of the outside world, and of the workings of alternative and democratic political systems, it was hard for them to imagine a different future. Most retained a deep, hidden reverence for the Dalai Lama, despite Beijing's vicious campaigns depicting him as a "splittist" and a "wolf in monk's clothing", but within this devotion was a sense that the battle for independence had been lost many decades before. Older people felt relief above all that the dark days of the 60s and 70s were behind them. They had little option but to operate within the system - in the bureaucracy, in the police or in politics - and the fact they did so did not mean they were pro-communist. Their Han Chinese colleagues were not regarded as enemies, and many Tibetans spoke Chinese when in the "public" sphere, for example when talking about their job or speaking a telephone number. Underlying this acceptance of Chinese control was an intense resentment that Tibetans were subordinate and, for example, had never held any of the key posts in the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region. While China has liberalised since the end of the Maoist era, the "minority" regions of Tibet and Xinjiang remain under close supervision, and in urban areas people are still obliged to spy on their neighbours. At present, the country is closed to outsiders. Over the last year, there have been repeated small-scale protests by Tibetans, which have been suppressed brutally, and it remains difficult to obtain accurate information about everyday life. One of the best depictions I have seen was in last year's BBC4 series A Year in Tibet, which was criticised by campaigners as being insufficiently condemnatory of the authorities. Foreign journalists who wish to report from the country either have to work under heavy restriction or rely on Tibetan refugees. A few days ago, I had a familiar experience: a senior TV correspondent was telephoning for advice about going to Tibet. His intention was to intercut undercover footage filmed in border areas with interviews conducted among exiles, since speaking to "actual" Tibetans was too difficult and dangerous. In the decade since my extended stay in Tibet, despite Beijing continuing to pour money into the region in subsidies, the overall situation has not improved. For most mainstream Han Chinese, who are ever more aware of their country's growing economic and strategic status in the world, the "Tibet problem" is an unwelcome distraction to the rise of China. The new railway line to Lhasa has brought a fresh wave of settlers, and the immediate spark for last year's protests by Tibetans was anger that the economic advantages of recent years had gone to outsiders. Their countrymen who study or work in places such as Xian, Chengdu and Beijing face constant suspicion, and find it more difficult, for instance, to get rooms in hotels. Although the Tibetan cause regularly brings out protesters in London, Washington, Berlin and Paris, it has little sympathy on the streets of China's cities. This inability to gain Chinese popular support even among those who are otherwise unsympathetic to the Communist party is the biggest single failure of the western pro-Tibet lobby, which is caught in a cul-de-sac, speaking to the converted and culling any messenger who dares to question its virtue. Adversarial contest is at the heart of the west's legal, political and academic life, and the Tibet movement operates within that paradigm, unaware that public humiliation of visiting Chinese leaders does nothing to improve the situation for Tibetans inside Tibet. I noticed during last year's Olympic torch procession that when rival groups of Han Chinese and iridescent pro-Tibet supporters stood waving flags, neither side attempted to speak to the other. The way in which China was routinely abused at this time caused distress to many Chinese, and led to counter-protests and the creation of websites such as anti-CNN.com. The ageing Dalai Lama continues to shuttle the globe selling the cause of Tibet and attracting sympathy and admiration rather than substantive political backing. Late last year, aware that a younger generation was disappointed with his strategy, he offered to step down and called an open meeting of Tibetans in Dharamsala. The government-in-exile managed the event: contrary views were ventilated at the margins, and the conference agreed to continue with more of the same. He has also made ambiguous statements about what will happen when he dies, even suggesting that he may not reincarnate and may instead nominate a successor. If this happens, the atheist Chinese government may usurp his authority by naming a child as his reincarnation, as they did after the death of another senior Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Panchen Rinpoche. Should Beijing decide to reach out and try to cut a deal with the exiles, it is likely to be in the post-Dalai Lama era. At present, it is not easy to see a happy outcome to the impasse between the Chinese and the Tibetans. Road building, power projects and nationalist propaganda have not won the hearts and minds of many in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Beijing knows it can put down any rebellion with force, while the Tibetans realise that, to use a traditional phrase, open revolt would be like throwing an egg against a rock. In the meantime, the suffering in Tibet continues. • Patrick French is the author of Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, published by Harper Perennial.