Why Beijing Needs the Dalai Lama

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Gurinder Osan / AP

The Dalai Lama speaks to the media in Dharamsala, India.

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 genocide."

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.