BEIJING (Reuters) - When China allowed envoys of the exiled Dalai Lama to visit Tibet in the early 1980s as part of a cautious detente, Communist Party cadres told residents not to stone or spit at their one-time masters.
But the officials were dumbfounded, and disconcerted, by what they saw: residents in Tibet’s capital Lhasa mobbed the envoys, kneeling, crying and clutching their clothing to air grievances.
The incident underlined the inability, or unwillingness, of the Party to comprehend Tibetans and their reverence for their god-king, which analysts say remains the Achilles’ heel of China’s Tibet policy.
This month, the Communist Party again showed that it was out of touch with popular sentiment in the pious Himalayan region when monk-led protests suddenly erupted in Lhasa and spilled over into Chinese provinces populated by Tibetans.
“The problem is that in the Party, they delude themselves by thinking that Tibetans don’t have legitimate grievances,” Tsering Shakya, a Tibet scholar at the University of British Columbia, said in a telephone interview.
China has sought to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans by investing heavily in infrastructure and sees Tibetans as “ungrateful natives”, Tsering Shakya said.
A Chinese source familiar with the government’s Tibet policy said: “The central government invests billions (of yuan) in Tibet each year hoping for stability in return.”
“But money cannot buy stability,” the source told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
The recent unrest is perhaps an omen that the Tibet issue -- an emotive one for many Westerners from the U.S. Congress to Hollywood -- will overshadow the Beijing Olympics with protests likely to plague the international leg of the torch relay.
Many Tibetans complain their religious rights are clipped and that their culture is being slowly snuffed out. China’s diatribes against the Dalai Lama also go down poorly.
The flare-up could be a turning point, as the region has a history of violent resistance against Chinese rule.
Tibetan guerrillas, funded and trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, ambushed and killed many Chinese soldiers in the 1960s. Fighting ending a decade later when the CIA pulled the plug after then president Richard Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to China.
Today, about 1,000 exiled Tibetans are serving in the Indian army, and there is no guarantee they would not return to guerrilla warfare if the Dalai Lama was to die without resolving remaining problems, analysts said.
China might eventually face a threat from radicalized Tibetans who reject the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s peaceful “middle way”, some say.
“The Dalai Lama is the key to the Tibet issue. He can either lock or unlock it,” Wang Lixiong, who has visited Tibet about 20 times and written three books on the mountain region.
Tibetan youth have become increasingly impatient with the Dalai Lama’s opposition to violence and advocacy of autonomy rather than independence.
“The lack of substantial progress undermines moderates in Tibet and gives hardliners a bigger say,” Wang said.
The Dalai Lama might be the sole restraint on radicalization of about 110,000 exiled Tibetans, analysts said.
Still, Tibet’s hardline Communist Party boss Zhang Qingli is struggling for political survival after the worst unrest in two decades occurred under his watch. He has opted to blame the Dalai Lama and his supporters for plotting the unrest.
Zhang would be the last to admit that his repressive policies, such as forcing monks to undergo re-education and denouncing the Dalai Lama, might have actually helped spark the revolt.
Zhang even went as far as to say the Party was a “living Buddha”, no doubt offending many in the region. The opening of a railway linking Tibet with the rest of China in 2006 has drawn criticism from international rights groups.
China’s confidence that materialism would erode Tibetans’ loyalty to the Dalai Lama was dented when many heeded his call not to wear endangered animal furs and burned prized skins.
Some analysts said it might be tough now for President Hu Jintao, who lacks the clout of his revolutionary forebears, to extend an olive branch to the Dalai Lama even if he wanted to.
But Hu is no stranger to seizing opportunity from crisis. He turned the tables during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and China came clean on reporting the epidemic. Hu has also undone many of his predecessor’s policies, mending fences with Taiwan and Japan.
Hu would have to persuade hawks in more than 10 ministry-level agencies who have an interest in keeping the Dalai Lama out -- including the provincial governments of Tibet and nearby Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan.
Ultimately, there are unlikely to be winners in this month’s unrest.
China has waged a smear campaign against the Dalai Lama and his supporters but few outside China are convinced. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will go ahead and meet the Buddhist monk when he visits Britain in May.
“He’s a voice for moderation, he’s very respected, he’s sincere in his desire to see the Tibetan issue resolved,” Minxin Pei, director of the China Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of the Dalai Lama.
“The Dalai Lama ought to be a partner, rather than an adversary,” Pei added.
Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck in Beijing and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by John Ruwitch and David Fogarty