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Why Taiwan is Allowing the Dalai Lama to Visit

August 31, 2009

Beijing accused the Dalai Lama, who has lived in
exile in India since 1959 after an abortive
uprising against China's invasion of Tibet, of
campaigning for independence for the region, but
the Dalai Lama has rejected those accusations and
said he wants autonomy for Tibet within China.
By Natalie Tso / Taipei
TIME
August 28, 2009

If you're in a mess, say 'yes.' That may be what
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou was thinking when
he gave his official nod to the controversial
visit of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's leader-in-exile,
to Taiwan next week. Ma has been facing his
lowest approval ratings — around 20% — since he
took office over a year ago. The public has been
angry with his lack of strong leadership and slow
relief efforts after typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan
on August 8th, bringing the worst floods in 50
years, and leaving at least 568 confirmed dead or
missing and over 7000 homeless.

Local government leaders of the opposition party
in the south -- the area hit hardest by the
typhoon -- invited the Dalai Lama to comfort and
pray for the victims of the worst natural
disaster to hit the island since a 1999
earthquake killed over 2,400. The Dalai Lama will
arrive on Aug. 30 to give speeches and visit
disaster areas for six days. This will be his
third visit to Taiwan; the first two were in 1997
and 2001. The presidential office said they
agreed to this visit on religious and
humanitarian considerations, adding that it
believed it would not harm relations with China.
(See photos of the life of the Dalai Lama.)

Just nine months ago, Ma had rejected the visit
of the Tibetan spiritual leader after the
Buddhist community invited him because he didn't
want to upset Beijing. Ma said then that "the
time was inappropriate" for such a visit. Forging
closer ties with China, Taiwan's long-time
political rival and military threat, has been
Ma's biggest priority and achievement so far as
president. In his short time in office, he's
reached milestones such as opening up investment
and tourism to the Chinese and establishing direct transportation.

As expected, China promptly expressed its
opposition to the visit. The day after Ma's
announcement, China's Taiwan Affairs Bureau said,
"No matter under what form or identity Dalai uses
to enter Taiwan, we resolutely oppose this,"
according to the Xinhua news agency. China is
sensitive to prominent overseas visits by Dalai
Lama, whom it accuses of seeking independence for
Tibet. Beijing boycotted a European Union summit
last December when French President Nicolas
Sarkozy said he planned to meet with the exiled Tibetan leader.

But the brunt of China's statement was aimed at
the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)
-- not the Ma administration. "Some DPP members
have taken the chance to plot the Dalai Lama's
visit to Taiwan," Xinhua reported, "Obviously
this is not for the sake of disaster relief. It's
an attempt to sabotage the hard-earned good
situation in cross-Strait relations." Political
commentator Antonio Chiang says China's
obligatory protest will not hurt Ma's platform of
improving relations. "Beijing is going to make
some noise, but that's it," he says. "They
understand Ma's in big trouble." Beijing, whose
goal is eventual unification with the island, is
wary of the DPP, which leans towards independence
for Taiwan, and would certainly like to see Ma
reelected in 2012. Ma's drop in popularity is
likely more a concern to China than the Dalai Lama's visit.

China has long struggled to reign in independence
movements in Taiwan and the semi-autonomous
regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where deadly riots
over ethnic tensions between the Han Chinese and
Uighur minority unfolded in July. With the
moderate Ma Ying-jeou as president, Beijing's
fears over Taiwan have been alleviated as Ma
promised not to declare independence during his
term. "[Beijing] needs Ma more than Ma needs Beijing now," says Chiang.

And for Ma, the current challenge is not
consoling his giant neighbor, but winning back
the hearts of his own people. "There are now
people who are thinking about the return of the
DPP," says Lin Chong-pin, a political scientist
at Tamkang University, "If the 2012 election was
held now, Ma would be bound to lose." Taiwan's
reception of their Tibetan guest next week is
Ma's bet to boost public sentiment. Though Ma is
unlikely to meet with the Dalai Lama officially,
they may appear together at religious gatherings
for the victims. Lin says, "On balance overall, I
think it will help Ma more than hurt him."
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