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Opinion: China contributes to Dalai Lama’s mystique

The more the Chinese threaten and scold, the more they promote the Dalai Lama's importance around the world.

Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, speaks in southern Taiwan, Sept. 1, 2009. (Nicky Loh/Reuters)

BOSTON — As tectonic plates rub up against each other, causing shivers and quakes along continental fault lines, so do nations — especially when the rising power of one is seen as a challenge to the once unchallenged power of another.

So it is with China and the United States these days. The United States scolds China about its currency valuation, its internet censoring, and China scolds the United States about legally mandated arms sales to Taiwan, and, habitually, any presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Nevermind that Barack Obama postponed seeing the Dalai Lama before his trip to China last year, out of consideration for China’s sensibilities, and nevermind that he fully informed China of his future intentions to see Tibet’s spiritual head at some future date. When it comes to the point of an actual meeting, China predictably has a fit.

And it’s not just the American president. Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany got the same treatment when they received the Dalai Lama. Obama shouldn’t take it personally, nor can it be considered a serious impediment to the world’s most important bilateral relationship. The Chinese know they have bigger fish to fry with the U.S., but they ritually react when it comes to anything having to do with Tibet.

Although the Dalai Lama has said time and time again that he is interested in local autonomy for Tibetans, not independence, China considers him a dangerous separatist — or “splittist,” as the Chinese are wont to say.

The Chinese are not all wrong to fear the Dalai Lama’s unique prestige. After all the brutal suppression, and the flooding of Tibet by ethnic Chinese, the Tibetan people have still not reconciled themselves to Chinese rule, any more than the Palestinians have reconciled themselves to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Whereas Tibet had long been a kind of satrapy of China, it enjoyed virtual independence in its mountain fastness until the new Communist government began re-imposing Chinese imperial power and invaded Tibet in 1950. After first trying to accommodate to Chinese rule the Dalai Lama fled to his present exile in India.

Unlike many other exiled leaders, however, the Dalai Lama has been remarkably successful at keeping the cause of Tibet alive. His success, like Gandhi’s, is due to uncanny political astuteness combined with an outward simplicity and spirituality that taps into the power of non-violent resistance. Just at the British had trouble coming to grips with just what Gandhi represented, so are the Chinese baffled by the Dalai Lama’s worldwide popularity. Invariably, the Chinese over-react.