Is the Dalai Lama preparing to visit China?

By Mayank Chhaya, New Kerala, April 11, 2006

Washington, USA -- Is the Dalai Lama closer now than ever before to embarking on his first visit to China in over four and a half decades? Atmospherics in Beijing and McLeodganj, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India, seem to suggest that may well be the case.

Of course, while nothing ever is as it appears in the Sino-Tibetan context, the idea of the Dalai Lama visiting China soon may not be altogether outrageous. It all began March 10, on the day to commemorate Tibetan National Uprising Day when the Tibetan leader expressed a wish to visit Buddhist sites in China. Rather than scoffing at it or rejecting it, as it would have normally done, Beijing responded with circumspection.

"As long as the Dalai Lama makes clear that he has completely abandoned Tibetan 'independence', it is not impossible for us to consider his visit," Ye Xiaowen, director of the cabinet's State Bureau of Religious Affairs, told the China Daily, the government's English-language mouthpiece. "We can discuss it."

Considering that the Dalai Lama dropped the demand for Tibetan independence quite sometime ago and has instead been pursuing autonomy within China, Ye's comments acquire significance.

This statement was followed by an unusually strong statement from the Tibetan Kashag or secretariat appealing to Tibetan exiles not to protest the upcoming visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the US and Canada. The statement said the negotiations between the Tibetan administration and the Chinese government were at a delicate stage and a protest at this stage could undermine its prospects. It noted that last year when such protests were mounted the process of dialogue was delayed by three months.

"It is not unprecedented but it is the strongest statement we have seen so far from the Tibetan Kashag on this issue," Kate Saunders, communications director for the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington D.C., told IANS.

"This is a critical moment, and some might say a historic opportunity, for Tibet and the Tibetan people. The Tibetan cause and the leadership of the Dalai Lama have legitimacy in the eyes of the world that China lacks. For more than 10 years, the Dalai Lama has made the pragmatic offer to relinquish the goal of independence in favour of genuine autonomy, a proposal that is consistent with China's governing Constitution," she said.

The latest round of Sino-Tibetan talks, the fifth in a series that began in 2002, touched upon a broad range of issues aimed at creating rapprochement. Among the specifics it was reported to have discussed a visit to China by the Dalai Lama. Since nothing happens in official China without careful orchestration the response from Ye Xiaowen ought to be part of a larger plan. The larger plan being to refurbish China's image as it has positioned itself as the pre-eminent power in Asia and managed to acquire a powerful voice internationally.

It is not an accident that China is also hosting the World Buddhist Forum this month for the first time since 1949 when Tibet first came into Beijing's crosshairs. It is possible that this show of tolerance for religious practices may amount to nothing more than window dressing to coincide with Hu's visit to the US. President George Bush's well known obsession with religious freedom and democracy would have played some part in China showing off some of its recent tolerance not just for Buddhism but even Christianity.

There has been speculation of Beijing warming up to the Vatican in recent weeks. That in January China allowed pilgrims to attend a prayer meeting in India presided over by the Dalai Lama was a sign of a subtle shift.

None of this could be taken to necessarily mean that the Tibet issue is acquiring a new urgency and that the Dalai Lama is on the verge of realizing his dreams. But in so much as the developments illustrate anything, they indicate possibilities in the air. It is a positive sign that Sino-Tibetan talks have continued over the last four years, notwithstanding that they have not yielded anything substantial yet.

Observers do not expect a 50-year-old issue to be resolved in five years but they also argue that China could well be simply playing along with the knowledge that at 70 the time is not on the Dalai Lama's side.