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13 September 1999

Press baron in “old monk“ storm

Rupert Murdoch's ignorant remarks about Tibet and the Dalai Lama show that he has become a propagand

By Jonathan Mirsky

Roman emperors and other potentates, it is said, sometimes kept a slave or a fool to remind them when they were about to say or do something particularly stupid. Rupert Murdoch needs such a person and clearly his new Chinese wife, Wendi Deng, won’t do.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, he has aired, among other things, his opinions about Tibet, describing the Dalai Lama as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes”. Or, more precisely, this is what Murdoch had heard “cynics” to say.

I declare an interest. I was the Times‘s East Asia editor for five years, and during four of them could write anything I liked about China or Tibet. In my last year, as Murdoch’s business interests in China expanded, things changed and eventually I resigned. I should say, too, that I have visited Tibet six times and am on good terms with the Dalai Lama.

Murdoch’s description of the Dalai Lama, who is several years younger than him, is like saying of the owner of the Times and the Sun: “He’s a very political old media mogul who’s got a new wife less than half his age who dresses him in baggy shorts and rollneck pullovers.” Insulting in a small way, maybe. Analytically, it’s Sun-style.

Well, yes, the Dalai Lama, who always describes himself as a monk, does wear casual shoes under his robes, and he has had a passion for expensive watches since President Roosevelt sent him a Rolex during the second world war. He also fixes them; Yale University presented him with elaborate Swiss watchmaker’s tools and I have given him a good watchmaker’s magnifying stand.

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The Dalai Lama also eats very simply and does hours of meditation every day. But so what? The Dalai Lama got the Nobel peace prize for what he says and does, not for what he wears on his feet and hands.

Lurching on, Murdoch said, “. . . half the people of Tibet still think he is the son of God”. Actually, all Tibetans think the Dalai Lama is the 14th incarnation of one of the manifestations of the Buddha, who is not a God. They also believe he is Tibet’s civil leader.

Finally, Murdoch says of Tibet before the Chinese occupation in 1950: “It was a pretty terrible old autocratic society out of the Middle Ages . . . Maybe I’m falling for their propaganda, but it was an authoritarian medieval society without any basic services.”

Murdoch is not falling for Chinese propaganda. He’s repeating it word for word. It is true there were horrible aspects of pre-1950 Tibet, which was no Shangri-la, and the Dalai Lama never shirks from admitting that. But perhaps when he is not angling for his latest contract in Beijing or Shanghai, Murdoch should read High Peaks, Pure Earth by Hugh Richardson, the west’s foremost Tibetanist, who represented India (that is, Britain) in Tibet from 1936, with occasional postings elsewhere, until 1950. Richardson was also a special correspondent for the Times and wrote eyewitness reports of the boy Dalai Lama’s first entry to Tibet in 1939.

This is what Richardson said about the Tibet – “without basic services” – in which he lived for many years: “It did not need any force to maintain itself; there were no police and there was hardly any army. It had evolved a closely knit society with a balanced economy and a higher standard of living with far less distance between rich and poor than obtained, say, in India. There was a regular supply of grain and large reserve stocks. No one suffered the degrading conditions of life of which we read in the industrial revolution.” He added: “I don’t suppose that the bliss of travel in pre-communist Tibet can be recaptured anywhere in the world. It is something to remember.”

Murdoch should look through back issues of the Times and read descriptions by its distinguished China specialist, the late David Bonavia, of what the Chinese occupiers have done in Tibet. They have attempted to strangle Buddhism, the basis of every aspect of life, smashed up many of the greatest cultural artefacts, imprisoned and secularised thousands of monks and nuns and caused a region-wide famine by changing from the staple barley to other grains which grow poorly at high altitudes. A few years ago, the Murdoch-owned Times carried articles about monks and nuns still being imprisoned and tortured in Lhasa’s Drapchi prison and about the recent Chinese kidnapping of the child Panchen Lama and his family, who have never been seen again. Such information rarely appears these days in the Times.

Some say this kind of thing is the work of the new Mrs Murdoch. I’m afraid not. Murdoch wants to make money in China and to that end he sold Hong Kong’s highly profitable South China Morning Post and took the BBC off his Hong Kong television channel; he admitted he did both these things because he wanted to do business in China. As a reward, last year President Jiang Zemin, in the words of the official Chinese news agency, “expressed appreciation of the efforts made by world media mogul Rupert Murdoch in presenting China objectively and co-operating with the Chinese press over the last two years”.

Murdoch has invested millions in the state-controlled Chinese media and performed many a grovel, including telling the Chinese leader that he agrees 100 per cent with everything he does. Foolishness. It’s like being blackmailed for no return. Few investors make anything in China, but the Chinese demand constant fealty. Sooner or later there will be another Tiananmen in China, or a series of them. Murdoch’s media in China will not tell the truth about them. This is the Chinese version of “objectivity”, about as objective as Murdoch’s description of the Dalai Lama and pre-Chinese Tibet.

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