Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme is a great survivor, the only Tibetan to have flourished equally under the Dalai Lama as under the Gang of Four. Decades of revolution and rebellion have torn apart most Tibetan families, yet nothing has touched Mr Jigme. Now 88, he is the patriarch of a clan with 60 members. Tall and thin with thick glasses, Mr Jigme still looks the Tibetan aristocrat even in a Western suit. Yet after a lifetime of service to the Chinese state, mostly in Beijing, he prefers speaking Tibetan rather than Chinese. He has rarely spoken to the press but, stung by being cast as the villain in Seven Years in Tibet - which opened in Hong Kong this week - he gave his version of his events in a lengthy interview. It is a long story. In 1950, the Dalai Lama appointed him governor of eastern Tibet to take command of the front line against the invading People's Liberation Army. In May 1951, he led the delegation that went to Beijing to sign the 17-point agreement which laid out the conditions for China's annexation of Tibet. During the 1959 rebellion, he was in the camp of the Chinese garrison advising them as the Dalai Lama fled to India. 'Most Tibetans in Tibet despise him as a traitor,' says historian Tsering Shakya, fellow in Tibetan studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. 'The Chinese use him to legitimise their rule. He is the man who signed the 17-point agreement and that is very important to them.' In the early 1960s, it was also Mr Jigme who counselled the young Panchen Lama against writing his damning indictment of communist policies in Tibet. In 1965, Mr Jigme was made the first chairman of the newly-established Tibet Autonomous Region, and later figurehead to the revolutionary committee which ruled during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s he went on to be made a vice-chairman of the National People's Congress and remains a vice-chairman of the lesser body, the CPPCC. Mr Jigme has not been back to Tibet since 1991 and has lived in Beijing since 1967, when Zhou Enlai had him lifted out after he was beaten by Red Guards. Most of his 12 children live in the capital and many hold high positions. But his third son, Ngapo Jigme, defected 13 years ago and lives in Washington where he worked for the Free Tibet Campaign and now heads the Tibet section of Radio Free Asia. 'In fact the Chinese Government has never trusted him. My father has been a figurehead. He never really had any power,' Ngapo Jigme said. Despite their differences, he believes his father has tried his best for Tibet. 'When things go wrong, people always look for a scapegoat, but it is more complicated than that,' the son said. In the film, Mr Jigme is shown deliberately conspiring with the Chinese generals and sabotaging the resistance effort in 1950. Both he and his son agree that the events portrayed in the film are completely fictitious and bear no resemblance to the book by Heinrich Harrer. 'I don't think all this comes from Harrer's book. It was made up by the producers in America,' Mr Jigme said. 'Apart from trivial particulars, from beginning to end, none of the stories in the movie tally with the facts. Only one of the details is close to the truth - that Harrer taught the Dalai Lama English.' His son is far blunter. 'It is like a very bad Chinese propaganda movie. A lot of things are completely inaccurate. For instance, Harrer never saw the Chinese troops; he left Tibet long before the PLA entered.' Mr Jigme does not deny that he undermined the Tibetan army's resistance, although he says there was no collusion. 'I had never set eyes on a Communist Party member before the PLA arrived, let alone had any contacts. I didn't know anything about communism,' he said. This is challenged by Mr Shakya, who is bringing out a new and thorough history of modern Tibet. 'Lhasa was full of refugees from Mongolia and Buryiatia who had witnessed what happened when communists came to power. People knew.' Mr Jigme insists that he knows his history and that history proves that Tibet has been a part of China since the Mongols invaded and conquered China 700 years ago. When the Manchu empire collapsed in 1911 Beijing's control only loosened temporarily. 'The 1911 revolution toppled the Qing [dynasty] and the Nationalists came to power. During this process the KMT's administration was not so tight and there appeared certain phenomena which looked like separation from China,' Mr Jigme said. Others disagree. 'Tibet declared independence in 1911 and after that the Chinese never exercised any control,' Mr Shakya said, pointing out that the Qing empire also claimed control over other states like Korea, Mongolia and Vietnam which are now independent. Mr Jigme's main defence is that in 1950 resistance was futile. 'Before I was sent to Kamdo [eastern Tibet] I was told that I would only go there for peaceful negotiations since fighting the Communist Party is in vain. It is impossible to fight. The Nationalists had an eight-million-strong army with the full backing of America. It was still defeated,' Mr Jigme said. The Tibetan population only numbered one million and he insists that he even had the backing of Lhasa to open negotiations. 'We had neither weapons nor training. How could we fight against the PLA? It was impossible!' he said. Mr Jigme described how when he arrived at the front he found chaos. There were six regiments of troops, each with 300 soldiers, more than 10,000 militia and nothing to eat. 'Local people lived in unbearable bitterness and many had run out of food,' Mr Jigme recalled. That was why he commanded the militia troops to disband. In his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama is particularly critical of Mr Jigme's actions during the rebellion. After a failed uprising in eastern Tibet, Lhasa was full of rebels who surrounded the Dalai Lama. At this critical moment, Mr Jigme remained in the Chinese garrison's camp, dressed in a Chinese uniform and sent letters to persuade the Dalai Lama to give himself up. Later, when the Dalai Lama had fled, Tibetans were represented only by the young Panchen Lama and Mr Jigme. It is the contrast between their two attitudes which for many Tibetans distinguishes the two men. 'The Panchen Lama often spoke out in defence of Tibet. People respected him for that,' Mr Shakya notes. As China crushed the 1959 rebellion, imprisoning tens of thousands, elsewhere the Great Leap Forward was in full swing. Temples were smashed, monasteries dissolved, and peasants and nomads were herded into communes. In many places up to 30 per cent of the population starved to death. The 10th Panchen Lama wrote a 70,000-word report after going to see the misery for himself in Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, parts of Tibet, now incorporated into Chinese provinces. Mr Jigme recalled what he said when the Panchen Lama, then just 24, consulted him about the report. 'I said he should go straight to central government leaders and make an oral report. I warned him not to write the report as it could provide grounds for them to attack you, but he turned a deaf ear.' His fears were justified. In 1962 Mao Zedong swept back into full power and was infuriated by the report, calling it a 'poisoned arrow'. The Panchen Lama was arrested and 'struggled against'. He was not freed for 16 years and was not fully rehabilitated until 1988, just before his death. Mr Jigme denies taking part in the violent struggle sessions against the Panchen and says the charges in the 70,000-word report are not true. The Panchen Lama found that up to 15 per cent of the population had been thrown into camps where half the inmates died of hunger. Due to starvation, the report warned that 'there is an evident and severe reduction in the present-day population of Tibet', and it complained that 97 per cent of the temples, monasteries and shrines had been destroyed. Mr Jigme denies all this. 'Some cadres may have violated policies, but this was not common in the whole of Tibet. Panchen only noticed individual cases - he failed to see the good overall situation. There were mistakes in his report. Of course, some of his complaints were right, but there were largely mistakes. 'I can tell you for sure that not a single man died of hunger in Tibet . . . I heard some people died in Qinghai, but don't know how many,' said Mr Jigme, who admits he never went to investigate himself. 'This is just a lie. A lot of people died of starvation inside the Tibet Autonomous Region,' Mr Shakya says. Mr Jigme's son agrees. 'Even Chinese population statistics clearly show a lot of people died in the famine,' Ngapo Jigme said. His father even denied that the Panchen was ever imprisoned, saying he was merely criticised and demoted. 'I appealed resolutely that he should not be dismissed and I clearly said I could not replace him,' Mr Jigme recalled. 'In early 1967 Red Guards from the Central Nationalities College climbed over the wall and took him away. They put him in custody and struggled [against] him. Premier Zhou heard about this and dispatched his secretary to save him. To ensure his protection, the Panchen Lama was placed under house arrest as were many other senior leaders.' In fact, the Panchen Lama would spend nine years in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement. He was often beaten. 'From time to time he was regularly taken out for massive struggle sessions in sports stadia in Beijing, where he would be publicly humiliated before thousands of people. On one infamous occasion, his sister-in-law was persuaded to accuse him from the podium of having raped her, and his younger brother beat him on the stage,' said a recent report from the Tibet Information Network. Following his release, the Panchen Lama became increasingly outspoken about Chinese policies in Tibet. Mr Jigme said they had strong but amicable differences of opinion. 'We always talked frankly instead of being polite.' Yet some claim that behind the scenes Mr Jigme has continued trying to modify Chinese policies. The Tibet Information Network has an internal speech made in 1988 in which he called on Beijing leaders to honour the terms of the 17-point agreement by which China promised to give Tibet autonomy. 'We must give Tibet more autonomous power than other minority regions. In my view, at present, the Tibet Autonomous Region has less autonomy than other autonomous regions, let alone compared with any provinces,' Mr Jigme said. In a 1991 speech he reminded Chinese leaders that clauses four and five of the agreement bind Beijing 'not to change the existing political system in Tibet'. Inside accounts also claim that Mr Jigme tried to stop Beijing from holding the golden urn divination ceremony to discover the 11th Panchen Lama reincarnation. He reportedly went to government archives to show that the central Government had not used the urn before nor had it been involved in the selection of the 10th Panchen. Yet, much to the anger of his family, Hollywood is likely to ensure that Mr Jigme will go down in history as a self-serving turncoat. And Mr Jigme himself alleges that the film is just another plot by the 'Dalai Lama clique'. 'Although the film mounts vicious attacks against me, I do not care. Instead I am happy. As Chairman Mao once said: 'We support those who are opposed by our enemies.' '