Chen Kuiyuan, ruler of the Tibet Autonomous Region [1992–2000], lived here in Chengdu [in neighboring Szechuan Province], and flew the two hours to Lhasa only when his presence was required. His predecessor as Party Secretary, Hu Jintao …, had even lived in Beijing for the last two years of his tenure. The official explanation for this was that both men suffered from respiratory problems at high altitude. Another reason, which I learned some weeks later, was that Chen was so despised by Tibetans, including those who worked within the Party bureaucracy, for the severity of the crackdown when he arrived in Lhasa in 1992, that he tried to avoid going to Tibet at all. The wandering British mathematician Thomas Manning had noticed a similar problem in 1811, writing: “The Chinese lord it here like the English in India … It is very bad policy thus perpetually to send men of bad character to govern Tibet. It no doubt displeases the Grand Lama and Tibetans in general, and tends to prevent their affections from settling in favour of the Chinese government.”
Party Secretary Chen was an old-style ideologue, resolutely against the political flexibility encouraged by elements within the Party leadership in Tibet. He often lashed out at the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, which he called a “foreign” religion. His speeches did not inspire confidence that he had anything to offer his fiefdom but further repression. In a radio broadcast in 1994, he had said:
As long as Party organisations around Tibet remain pure, strong and capable of fighting, the disturbance caused by the splittist forces is nothing to us … We should never give up our education and guidance to the people and should not allow a laissez-faire attitude towards religions under the pretext that people are free to profess a religion. Communists are not allowed to have any religious belief, much less participation in religious activities.
So Tibet was run from Chengdu, by remote control, in the colonial way. The rulers of empires are rarely interested in those they rule; they administer and deal with them, trying to project a sense of permanence, but find their subjects frustrating and ungrateful. The colonised reciprocate with resentful over-interest, looking to conspiracy to explain their plight, thinking their rulers must have some overarching idea or policy towards them, when really they are doing no more than muddling through, defending their position, trying not to lose control. No Chinese paramount leader—not the emperors of old, not Mao Zedong, not Deng Xiaoping—has been to Tibet, although the Tibetan plateau makes up almost a quarter of China’s land mass. Jiang Zemin visited Lhasa in 1990 before he became president, but has not been back since.
SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 30-31