By John Ruwitch
LHASA, Tibet – Tourists and Buddhist pilgrims flow through a dim quarter of a Lhasa temple illuminated by manhole-size butter candles in brass urns.
Some stop to tuck a banknote or two in glass barriers in front of towering Buddhist images, including the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, who unified Tibet in the 17th century and began building the famed Potala Palace.
It is a traditional offering, but a portly monk sitting nearby sees the hundreds of bills, from scores of countries and every continent, as a barometer of support for Tibet and the current Dalai Lama, living in exile for 44 years.
That support and pressure from foreign governments, he says, has been key in encouraging a slow and subtle shift in official Chinese attitudes toward the Tibetan god-king, labeled a separatist since he fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959.
“For this, we owe you thanks,” the monk said. “We hope he will come back. One hundred percent of Tibetans hope he comes back, but we can’t say so. They kill us, put us in jail.”
For years, China has said the Dalai Lama, who has just ended a visit to the United States where he met President Bush, has tried to use his religious status to break the “Land of Snows” away from the motherland.
Pictures of the 68-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner are banned in China. Open displays of respect for him are considered criminal. News of the Dalai Lama is frequently censored.
But things are slowly changing.
In the past year and a half, China has allowed his elder brother to visit Tibet and officials have hosted two trips by personal envoys of the Dalai Lama, described by the Tibetan government-in-exile as “bridge-building agents.”
China protested against the U.S. visit, but did not directly say if the trip, or the Dalai Lama’s meeting with Bush, would harm tenuous detente between the government and the Buddhist leader.
A source close to the Dalai Lama’s office in exile in the Indian town of Dharamsala said the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetans were taking care lately not to upset China. But, he added, China also appeared willing to give detente a try and the U.S. visit did not appear to have caused serious damage.
“If the Chinese are really serious about trying to resolve the Tibetan issue, then I don’t think the meeting with the U.S. administration will affect anything,” he said.
But even without the controversial U.S. visit, uncertainties surrounding the apparent shift in China-Dalai Lama relations have raised as many questions as they have answered.
The biggest, perhaps, is: Where is it all going?
“Over the last 10 years there’s been a real diplomatic stalemate until now between the Tibetans and the Chinese leadership, and there’ve been various false alarms over the years,” said Kate Saunders, a Tibet specialist based in Britain.
“There’s great hope and optimism in certain quarters about the possibilities that this current talks process could bring. But we don’t yet know China’s gameplan for this.”
Envoys of the Dalai Lama and several of his relatives have made trips to China since the late 1970s, but they have done little to bring down the mountain of mistrust and misunderstanding.
Some observers, including the government-in-exile, were hopeful the change in attitude toward Tibet came from China’s new leadership, under President and party chief Hu Jintao, which has been in power for less than a year.
“This change is clearly reflected in their willingness to listen to Tibetan concerns and grievances,” said spokesman Thubten Samphel. “It’s a huge change in attitude.”
Underscoring the point, some say, was the release in March of Ngawang Sangdrol, a Tibetan nun who spent a decade in jail for pro-independence protests.
On a recent visit to Tibet by journalists, officials refrained from making the usual references to the Dalai Lama as “insincere” and a “splittist.”
GAINING BROWNIE POINTS?
Nevertheless, other than the increase in contacts, there are scant signs Beijing’s position is changing.
The government has not backed off from tough preconditions it says the Dalai Lama must accept before he can be welcomed back, including taking up Chinese citizenship.
Skeptics speculate China may be playing a more savvy game by making it look as if it is weighing new ways to deal with Tibet.
“That’s a strong possibility,” Saunders said. “They’ve certainly got the message that Tibet is a big issue with Western governments and that they can gain brownie points with them for appearing to make concessions.”
Some see a split in the Chinese leadership with some policy makers preferring never to see him ever return. Others favor a milder approach.
“They may realize what a force he is and this is a force that could go both ways,” said an Asian diplomat in Beijing.
Regardless of the reasoning, the opening was good for the government-in-exile.
“At least they appear to be pushing on an open door at the moment, rather than continually battering on a closed door,” Saunders said.
Meanwhile — thaw or no thaw — the money collection in the temple keeps growing.