Does the Dalai Lama Still Matter?

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Mary Altaffer / AP

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, speaks to members of the Tibetan Community Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.

"Do you write about the Dalai Lama?" It was an unexpected question, coming from a Chinese PR official walking me out of an entirely unrelated interview. It's not often that the name of the Tibetan spiritual leader is raised in China, and I assumed that what I would hear next was some version of the official Chinese line, painting the Dalai Lama as a swindler who wants to divide China. But I was surprised again. "I respect the Dalai Lama very much," the person said. The Dalai Lama is in the news again, in part because he's about to be awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal on Capitol Hill in a ceremony to be attended by President George W. Bush — much to China's chagrin.

Since he fled Tibet almost a half century ago, the Dalai Lama has become an internationally recognized figure, won the Nobel Peace Prize and made the plight of his people a cause celebre. But his goal of an autonomous Tibet seems further from being realized now than it ever has been. Not only does Beijing harshly crack down on anyone who pushes for a freer Tibet, but it is using China's rapidly growing economy to bind the region ever closer. In 2006, Beijing opened a rail connection to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and 1.5 million passengers have ridden it to Tibet since then. Luxury hotels are opening up in the Tibetan capital to handle the influx. A booming Chinese quarter with discos and department stores give parts of the city the feel of a generic mainland boomtown, and it's easier to find a Sichuan restaurant than it is to find authentic Tibetan food.

Given the changes that are unfolding in Tibet now, it's worth wondering whether the Dalai Lama really matters any more. Beijing announced earlier this year that it will have the final say on the naming of his reincarnation, and the idea of an atheist, authoritarian government holding final say in a religious matter elicited condemnation in the West. Meetings in July between his representatives and Chinese authorities aimed at improving dialogue between the two sides produced no concrete results. State-run Chinese news organs have given heavy play in recent days to stories claiming that the Dalai Lama is a supporter of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo and a betrayer of Buddhism.

Beijing also seeks to marginalize him abroad. After German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with the Dalai Lama last month, Chinese government representatives canceled a series of meetings with German officials, including a discussion on human rights planned for December. The news that President George W. Bush will meet with the Dalai Lama on Tuesday, and will, along with First Lady Laura Bush, attend a ceremony on Wednesday at which the U.S. Congress will present the Dalai Lama with the nation's highest civilian honor, prompted an angry response from Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said, "The Chinese Government strongly opposes the U.S. Congress giving the Dalai Lama a so-called award."

Despite China's importance as a trading partner, and as a positive diplomatic force on issues such as North Korea's nuclear program, Bush seems willing to risk irritating Beijing to honor the Dalai Lama. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "We would hope that the Chinese leader would get to know the Dalai Lama as the President sees him, as a spiritual leader and someone who wants peace." That's not going to happen any time soon. But Bush has made it clear to the Chinese that he respects the Dalai Lama. And while the Chinese government may loathe the Tibetan spiritual leader, their defensiveness in recent weeks show that in their own way they respect him too.