China over the years has derided the Dalai Lama as a jackal in Buddhist robes, choreographer of a separatist Peking opera and, lately, instigator of a plot that led some Tibetans to set themselves on fire and other forms of protest.
Even so, China’s hardline rulers may have reason to miss him when he’s gone. The aging spiritual leader’s presence and message of non-violence have kept a damper on unrest but, once he dies, things could worsen rapidly.
The protests in Tibetan plateau communities in Sichuan Province last month follow a year in which at least 16 Tibetans — most Buddhist monks and nuns — have self-immolated in protests seeking a return of the exiled Dalai Lama and freedom for Tibet.
China has branded the immolators as terrorists and, in a familiar refrain, Beijing on Wednesday last week blamed Tibetan separatist forces for fomenting hatred among the people and sparking the protests that were put down by armed police using deadly force.
With unrest in once-quiet areas of the Tibetan plateau and little prospect for direct talks between China and the Tibetan government-in-exile, concern is growing that violence will boil over upon the death of the Dalai Lama.
If nothing changes, Beijing will likely respond with the same tough measures it has used for decades.
“Positions have hardened,” Khedroob Thondup, nephew of the Dalai Lama, said from his part-time home in Taiwan.
The Dalai Lama has generally managed to restrain Tibet’s youth with his message of non-violence, said Thondup, a former member of the exiled government who traveled to China 15 times for official talks before negotiations went sour.
The 76-year-old monk is in good health, Thondup said, exercising daily on a treadmill, with access to on-call doctors. He recently underwent cataract surgery in New Delhi but expects he’ll live at least another 20 years.
“As long as His Holiness is alive, we are non-violent and respect his views,” said Thondup, who runs a center for exiled Tibetans in Darjeeling, India. “If His Holiness were to suddenly leave the scene, yes, there will be many more problems for the Chinese government.”
The latest violence is the worst since riots killed at least 19 people throughout Tibetan parts of China in 2008. What Beijing terms the Tibet Autonomous Region has remained under tight security since.
Overseas advocacy groups say up to seven Tibetans were shot dead and more than 60 wounded as police snuffed out the Sichuan protests. State media said police fired in self defence.
Security forces have since thrown a blanket across a huge swathe of Tibetan China. Hundreds of kilometers from the scene of the Sichuan violence, police surrounded the town of Danba with road checks in an effort to prevent the Tibetan defiance from spreading and foreign reporters from entering.
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were sealed off by police roadblocks and an official turned back reporters, saying road conditions were unsafe.
That may be just a taste of what is to come.
“Given the centrality of the demand among Tibetans that the Dalai Lama be allowed to return to Tibet, were he to pass away in exile abroad, it could spark an unpredictable wave of protests far greater than 2008 and an even harsher crackdown,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
China has relied on a blend of investment and repression for years, from the era of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) through almost a decade under President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), who is due to retire in a leadership transition that begins late this year.