At the Heart of the Tibetan Protests, the Dalai Lama

After several days of death, destruction and demonstrations, reports say a tense calm has settled over Lhasa, Tibet — a calm that isn't matched in relations between Tibetan and Chinese leaders. The rancor between the two sides has proved intractable, according to Economist Asia editor Simon Long, largely because the Dalai Lama insists so strongly on Tibetan autonomy within China.

The Tibetan spiritual leader's stance is not quite revolutionary, Long says, but it is unacceptable to the Beijing government.

In condemning this week's riots in Tibet, Chinese Premiere Wen Jiabao took aim at supporters of the Dalai Lama. Wen accused the so-called "Dalai clique" of lying about its goal of independent statehood. But Long says the allegations only gave the Dalai Lama yet another chance to deny the Chinese government's line.

In a move that promises to raise the stakes even higher, he said Tuesday he would step down as Dalai Lama if the violence gets out of hand. The journalist calls that something of an empty threat.

"He's an incarnation of the Buddha of passion," Long says. "So he can't really resign." The Dalai Lama lives in exile in India, where Long says he acts as the leader of Tibet's exiled democratic government. As such, he is clearly the main political representative for Tibetans everywhere.

That the Dalai Lama is considering resigning, Long says, is a measure of just how scared he is about the possibility of continuing and worsening clashes, not just in Lhasa, but in other parts of China.

"He's seen ghastly violence," Long says. "He's obviously worried that as the Chinese move in to suppress protesters, there will be considerable bloodshed."

Long says the autonomy within China that the Dalai Lama emphasizes is identical to an agreement he reached with the Chinese as a teenager, in 1951.

"It's something the Chinese failed to honor," Long says. "The Chinese are deeply conflicted. On one hand they say he's increasingly irrelevant. But as soon as anyone says anything about independence, they accuse the Dalai Lama of being behind it."

Long says the Chinese are likely waiting for the current Dalai Lama to die so they can install their own pick for a new leader in Tibet. Long says it's inevitable a Chinese-installed Dalai Lama would not enjoy anything like the current respect and veneration — which means his followers might grow more desperate.

"It is a risk the Chinese are taking," Long says. "It's an almost certainty the next Dalai Lama will not be as accommodating as this one. They are missing a great opportunity to work with a leader that is respectful and will work them."

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