Friday 16th May 2003
Tibet: Past and Present
Robert Ford


Robert Ford was a radio operator in Tibet when the Chinese armies invaded in 1950 and one of the fewer than six westerners living in the country at that time. As such, he is uniquely placed to give a firsthand account of the invasion and of this fascinating country as it existed prior to that date.

Tibet Support Group Grampian in conjunction with the University of Aberdeen Chinese Studies Group.

A most interesting talk was given by Robert Ford, covering his work at the request of the then in-power Tibetan government to install radio links between Lhasa and other Tibetan centres of population.  This was only shortly before the Chinese Invasion in the early 1950's, and gave Mr Ford a unique opportunity to see the lifestyle and living-conditions of Tibetans prior to the Communist takeover.

It was also mentioned that, whilst other countries (including our own!) were not entirely blameless as far as "colonising" other territories went, nevertheless China's present-day actions in Tibet have many parallels with the worst evils of South African aparthied, under which the native population were treated as second-class citizens, with the unauthorised Chinese colonists being given precedence over them in almost all aspects of standard-of-living.

Of note was that Mr Ford recalled the Tibet he visited so long ago as being a place teeming with wildlife; very different from the picture we see today, of a harsh, barren land.  He attributes this to the pre-invasion Tibetans' policy of hunting only when necessary, and allowing wildlife to flourish. In contrast the Chinese occupiers have (as far as is known) imposed no restrictions on hunting, and the (regrettable) result is the barren Tibetan landscape of today.

A lively debate followed the talk, in which a number of oriental visitors hotly disputed Mr Ford's claims that the pre-invasion Tibetans, whilst not rich by our standards, had enjoyed better living conditions before Chinese rule. Perhaps the "last word" on this was that Mr Ford had at least been to Tibet. Eventually it became apparent that his most vociferous critic, an ardent Communist, had never actually seen the place.

Tea and biscuits provided by "our usual logistics crew" were most welcome.