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Hints of detente between Dalai Lama and Beijing

The Dalai Lama attends the final day of an interfaith meeting in New Delhi, India, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Photo: AP

Some of the frost appears to be melting off the frigid relationship between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.

On September 18, the Dalai Lama took the opportunity of Xi Jinping’s first official visit to India, the Tibetan spiritual leader’s home since he fled China in 1959, to offer cautious praise of the Chinese leader.

“Xi Jinping is more open-minded. His thinking is more realistic,” than that of previous Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Dalai Lama said in remarks broadcast by television news channels. So, “he can learn more from India.”

While hardly effusive, the statement was noteworthy for coming amid small signs that Beijing’s attitude toward Tibet may be softening.  It also marks a shift in tone from last week, when the 79-year-old put Beijing in a difficult spot by suggesting not only that he might reincarnate outside Tibet, but that he might not reincarnate at all.

China’s government has long asserted authority over the appointment of senior lamas, and exiled Tibetans fear Beijing might try to install a government-friendly Dalai Lama after the current one dies.

“We follow a policy that honors religious freedom, including honoring and respecting the Buddha reincarnation system,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chuying said in response to the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation comment. “The Dalai Lama has ulterior political motives and his words constitute a severe sabotage to the system.”

Despite that charged response, there’s been a smattering of recent signs that suggest a more conciliatory attitude towards Tibetans on the part of Beijing.

In December, the government announced plans to introduce a new law that would stress protection of the Tibetan language – a persistent source of concern among Tibetans who worry that Chinese immigration and educational requirements are eroding traditional culture. Scholars have also noted that Beijing has subtly toned down its rhetoric on the Dalai Lama, referring to him more often by his full title instead of the pejorative truncation “the Dalai.”

On September 18, an anonymous Chinese blog post describing the Dalai Lama’s return as a “win-win” added to the intrigue. Illustrated with a photo of a serene looking Dalai Lama bowing with his hands pressed together, it argued that allowing the spiritual leader to return home would reduce the ability of Western countries to assault China over the Tibet question while winning the confidence of Tibetans in and outside of the country and undermining extremists.

“Since Mr. Xi became General Secretary, the Dalai Lama has more than once expressed goodwill towards him,” it added.

The post, which was later taken down, was based on rumors of talks between the Dalai Lama and Beijing that the Dalai Lama’s camp says are untrue. Columbia University Tibet specialist Robert Barnett said he nevertheless saw it as significant, noting that it was left online long enough to rack up more than 50,000 views.

“The point seems to have been to use [rumors of talks] as a cover for publishing a set of serious arguments for a very moderate policy approach,” he said. “I think that might be the first time those arguments have appeared in print in China.”

Mr. Barnett said it was difficult to say what the appearance and popularity of the blog post meant. But he also said he thought it was probably only a matter of time before Beijing made “at least surface level” gestures aimed at re-starting talks with the Dalai Lama on a possible return, in part because of a surge in anti-government violence tied to the mostly Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.

“It would make sense for China to ease pressure on Tibet now that it faces growing problems in Xijiang,” he said.

The long history of back-and-forth between Beijing and the Dalai Lama suggests any progress, if it comes, will come slowly. Beijing for years has demanded that the Dalai Lama disavow Tibetan independence before being allowed to return. The spiritual leader has repeatedly said he only wants more autonomy for Tibet, not full independence. But Chinese leaders have not budged.

Asked about the rumors of an impending agreement at a regular press briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei was evasive. “As far as the question of the Dalai’s personal future, our position is very clear,” he said, presumably referring to a disavowal of independence. “The government has been clear to him about our requirements.”

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