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Growing Gulf Divides China and Dalai Lama

March 31, 2008

The New York Times
March 29, 2008

SHANGHAI — Across much of the Western world, the Dalai Lama is known as
the beatific spiritual leader of a humble community of Buddhists,
beloved in Hollywood, Congress and the White House, winner of the Nobel
Peace Prize.

Chinese leaders cast him in a different light. They call him a
separatist and a terrorist, bent on killing innocent Han Chinese and
“splitting the motherland.” That gap in perception, which has grown
immeasurably wider in the two weeks since violent unrest rocked Tibet,
is breeding pessimism that Chinese leaders are willing — or perhaps even
able — to embark on a new approach to Tibet even as it threatens to cast
a long shadow over their role as hosts of the Olympic Games this summer.

President Hu Jintao, whose rise to leadership of China’s Communist Party
was built partly on his record as party boss in Tibet during a period of
unrest in 1989, has shown no signs of making a historic gambit for peace

Rather, he seems to be wagering that China can hunker down, keep a tight
lid on Tibet through the Olympics and wait for the Dalai Lama, who is
72, to die, analysts say.

“I would obviously like for there to be a policy debate, but I see no
suggestion of one,” said Wang Lixiong, a Chinese expert on Tibet and a
signer of a recent petition by Chinese lawyers and scholars urging the
government to resume discussions with the Dalai Lama. “There has been a
big failure, but to see the government change its path or policy right
before the Olympics isn’t likely.”

The inflexibility in Beijing’s position leaves Western countries with a
problem. President Bush and a roster of European and Asian leaders have
called for Mr. Hu to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama as a first step
toward reducing tensions in Tibet. If Mr. Hu declines to do so, those
leaders seem likely to face pressure from their own constituencies to
take stronger diplomatic or political steps against Beijing at the
moment it had expected to bask in the international limelight.

Already, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has suggested that he might
consider using his presidency of the European Union this summer to
organize a boycott of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. An
embarrassing protest at the lighting ceremony of the Olympic torch in
Greece, and the cries of monks in Lhasa who disrupted a scripted tour of
the Tibetan capital for foreign reporters on Thursday, portend a steady
drum roll of criticism of China.

The call for some kind of Chinese-Tibetan talks continues to mount. On
Friday, the Dalai Lama, speaking in India, made his most extended
comments on the violence, accusing China’s state-run media of trying to
“sow the seeds of racial tension” there but calling for “meaningful
dialogue” with Beijing about how to defuse tensions.

President Bush, speaking of the possibility that Mr. Hu might pursue
diplomatic talks with Tibetan exiles, said “it’s in his country’s
interest.” Standing by Mr. Bush’s side, Kevin Rudd, Australia’s new,
Chinese-speaking prime minister, who was visiting Washington, said,
“It’s absolutely clear that there are human rights abuses in Tibet.”

Mr. Hu told Mr. Bush during a phone call on Wednesday that he was
willing to talk to the Dalai Lama, according to China’s official Xinhua
news agency. But what was most striking about the exchange was the
consistency of Beijing’s language on Tibet, which analysts say provides
little reason to expect new initiatives.

Mr. Hu’s formulation, which has been used almost word for word since the
time of Deng Xiaoping, in the 1980s and ’90s, was that China would
resume contact with the Dalai Lama as long as he abandoned advocating
Tibetan independence, stopped activities aimed at “splitting the
motherland” and accepted that Tibet and Taiwan were inalienable parts of

The problem with Beijing’s line is that even when the Dalai Lama insists
that he does not seek independence, as he and his representatives have
repeatedly done, the Chinese government has merely repeated this trope,
leaving little room for progress.

As it is, the Tibetan protests of the last two weeks seem to have taken
Beijing by surprise, spreading quickly outside of the province
officially known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region and into areas of
neighboring provinces where Tibetans live in large numbers. The unrest
has been the broadest in scale since sustained riots and a bloody
crackdown in 1989.

Yet inside China, the protests have been portrayed as little more than
thuggish violence against Han Chinese orchestrated by the “Dalai clique”
from its base of exile in Dharamsala, India. The ruling party’s
relentless anti-Dalai propaganda, reminiscent in some ways of the
Cultural Revolution-style vilification of its enemies, has left the
leadership in a self-imposed straitjacket.

Even as he seemed to concede that China had made mistakes in handling
the protests, Hu Yan, a professor of social sciences at the party’s
Central Committee School, expressed confidence in its ability to prevent
further trouble before the Olympics.

“I think we can control the situation before it spreads any further,”
Mr. Hu said. “We were too soft at the beginning, allowing them to
destroy fire engines and rob banks without doing anything. We should
have fired more tear gas, at least.”

Robert Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia
University, dismissed the Chinese contention that the protests amounted
to little more than criminal riots, calling their spread through several
provinces significant. “Nothing like this has happened for the last 40
years, and no Chinese leader is going to miss that,” Mr. Barnett said.
“They have lost the countryside, and they are going to have to work very
hard to win it back.”

But Mr. Hu, the professor at the Central Committee School, hinted at
what many believe is China’s bottom-line thinking on Tibet. “This issue
can only be resolved in the long term,” he said. “It’s a long-term
campaign, and we probably have to wait for the Dalai Lama to reincarnate.”

China’s long-term strategy, which the violence may have only reinforced,
has been to wait for the Dalai Lama to die on the theory that it can
control his successor as Tibet’s spiritual leader. A new Dalai Lama
would likely have little of the same prestige, inside China or abroad.

In 1995, China arrested the Panchen Lama, the No. 2 in Tibetan Buddhism,
a 6-year-old at the time. He has not been seen since. China then
anointed another Tibetan youth as a replacement, and it has tightly
controlled his education and public duties since. Under Tibetan
Buddhism, traditionally the Panchen Lama names a new Dalai Lama,
theoretically giving the Chinese government control over the present
Dalai Lama’s succession.

To counter this approach, Tibetans have floated ideas about changing the
rules of succession, allowing the Dalai Lama to anoint a Tibetan child
who lives in exile, or an even more radical change, allowing Tibetans to
select a new Dalai Lama by voting. Either measure would be certain to
infuriate the Chinese government, which reserves the right to control
all organized religion.

The current Dalai Lama has repeatedly promised that he has no desire to
see Tibet break free of Chinese sovereignty. He has, though, pressed for
what he calls “genuine autonomy” under Chinese rule. He refers to
China’s Constitution, which invokes the right of autonomy and
self-government “in areas where people of minority nationalities live in
compact communities.”

“The task at hand is to develop a system that would grant the kind of
autonomy required for the Tibetans to be able to survive as a distinct
and prosperous people within the People’s Republic of China,” said Lodi
Gyaltsen Gyari, a special envoy of the Dalai Lama, in a speech given in
Washington in 2006.

Party leaders have resisted even that modest vision of enhanced
self-government. Officials seem to fear that enhanced political autonomy
could overload the circuits of the Chinese state, inciting demands from
other ethnic or religious groups and unleashing centrifugal forces that
could break up the country as surely as Tibetan demand for independence.

“If you look carefully at what the Dalai Lama says, the giving up
independence part is really empty, while the demands for a greater Tibet
and a high degree of autonomy are real,” said Zhang Yun, a scholar at
the China Tibetology Research Center. “What kind of government could
allow that? That’s impossible.

“A high degree of autonomy means giving up everything: our
administrative system, our cadre system, and even party-led socialism.”

David Barboza contributed reporting.
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