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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Why Beijing Needs the Dalai Lama

March 20, 2008

By Tony Karon
Wednesday, Mar. 19, 2008

Despite the intensity of the confrontation between the Chinese
authorities and Tibetan protestors, Beijing and the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, appear to be subtly acknowledging the
extent to which they need each other. But you have to read past the
pungent rhetoric to see that.

China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on Tuesday lashed out at the Dalai
Lama, blaming the exiled Tibetan leader for the confrontations of the
past week. The events that have rocked Tibet and Tibetan communities all
over the region, Wen charged, had been "masterminded and incited by the
Dalai Lama clique."

The Dalai Lama insisted that the uprising in Tibet was a spontaneous
reaction to Beijing's unyielding refusal to hear Tibetan grievances, and
its adoption of a policy that the spiritual leader branded "cultural

Not much room for a meeting of minds, then. Or is there?

Even as he lambasted the exiled Tibetan leader, Wen added, "We have
repeatedly stated that [if] the Dalai Lama gives up his independence
position, recognizes Tibet as an inseparable part of China's sovereign
territory and recognizes Taiwan as an inseparable part of China's
sovereign territory, [then] our door is open to him for talks ... But
the recent events exactly prove he is hypocritical on these two key
issues. Even so, I want to reiterate that we still keep our word. Now
what is key to this is his action."

But the Dalai Lama continues to speak out against the goal of
independence as unrealistic — much to the chagrin of an increasingly
militant younger generation of Tibetans — and has called instead for
"genuine" autonomy for Tibet. The Dalai Lama continues to reiterate his
firm commitment to policies that have been rejected by many younger
Tibetan activists as ineffectual. On Tuesday, he reaffirmed his
preference for dialogue and coexistence with the Chinese, threatening to
resign his political leadership role if the confrontation with Beijing
continued, and urging restraint among Tibetan activists aiming to
confront the Chinese. Clearly, the Dalai Lama is concerned that
confronting a far stronger rival — one whose centrality to the global
economy makes it an indispensable partner to the world's most powerful
nations — can only result in defeat, and ruin any prospect of a
consensual coexistence between Beijing and a relatively autonomous Tibet.

Beijing and the Dalai Lama are a long way from productive dialogue right
now, of course, and each side sees reason to mistrust the other. Chinese
leaders view the Tibet rebellion as having been stoked by the exiled
Tibetan leadership in order to embarrass Beijing on the eve of its
Olympic coming-out party, hoping to internationalize their quest for
independence in the way that the Kosovar Albanians have — an outcome
China will resist at any cost. The activists may be hoping to provoke an
international boycott of the Beijing Olympics as a way of forcing China
to deal with their demands, although such a boycott remains extremely
unlikely, with most Western governments having moved quickly to squelch
any suggestion that they might stay away from the Games. China's
centrality to the world economy today has given it the equivalent of
great-power status, meaning that even when others criticize its human
rights abuses, there is too much else riding on their relationship to
allow it to be disrupted by such concerns.

The exiled Tibetan leadership, for its part, fears that the dialogue
started in 2002 between the Chinese authorities and representatives of
the Dalai Lama has never been treated seriously by Beijing, and that it
may simply be a ruse to run out the clock on the political career of the
73-year-old spiritual leader. All the while, China has sought to
transform Tibet through massive investment in its economic development,
hoping that Colonel Sanders, and the consumer culture he represents,
will prove a more alluring icon than the Dalai Lama to younger Tibetans.
This, and the mass migration of Han Chinese into Tibet, threatens the
viability of Tibet's traditional way of life, which is what prompts the
Dalai Lama's accusation of "cultural genocide."

Still, both sides may have an incentive to find a bridge over the gulf
that separates them. In the short term, Beijing sees the Olympics as its
symbolic entry onto the world stage, and is wary of any developments
that could mar its triumph. In the longer term, Beijing needs to contain
and manage those centrifugal forces that threaten to break off any part
of China. Those concerns, as well as an overall desire to maintain
social stability as growing inflation raises the specter of economic
turbulence, weigh heavily against the Chinese leadership opting for the
sort of brutal crackdown that ended the Tiananmen Square protests in
1989. The enraged citizenry of Western nations would likely make their
own governments' support for the Olympics untenable if China's streets
were drenched in blood.

Whether Beijing is prepared to recognize it at this stage or not, the
Dalai Lama may represent its best hope of stabilizing Tibet without a
bloodbath — persuading those Tibetans now tilting at the Chinese
presence in their midst to voluntarily stand down. And, perhaps sensing
that more militant Tibetans are embarking on a no-win path of
confrontation, the Dalai Lama is, in fact, moving to restrain them.
Threatening to resign his political post if the confrontations persist,
he told his followers that "violence is against human nature". Clearly
troubled by the images of Tibetans in Lhasa responding to the police
crackdown by attacking ordinary Chinese residents of the city and their
businesses, he added, "We must not develop anti-Chinese feelings.
Whether we like it or not we have to live side by side."

Despite their deep differences, then, Beijing and the Dalai Lama share a
preference for resolving the current conflict peacefully, on the basis
of Tibet remaining part of China — albeit with sharply different ideas
on the extent of its autonomy. The problem for both sides is that the
longer the confrontation persists, the slimmer the chance of effecting
such a solution.
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