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Why is China afraid of the Dalai Lama?

Posted July 17, 2011, at 8:15 p.m.

“If China overnight adopted a democratic system, I might have some reservations. . . . If central authority collapsed, there could be a chaotic situation, and that’s in no one’s interest.”

The words of caution might have come from a Communist Party leader, once again lecturing the West not to push too hard on human rights. But, no; this was the party’s nemesis, the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, explaining in an interview this week why he favors “gradual change.”

Listening to his moderate, sensible advocacy of step-by-step democratization, it was impossible not to marvel at the fear that leads Beijing to view this 76-year-old Buddhist leader as such a mortal threat — not to mention the confusion he seems to cause within the Obama administration, which once again was declining to answer the seemingly simple question of whether the president and th e Dalai Lama would meet during the Dalai Lama’s 10-day visit to Washington.

We talked in a room in the bowels of Verizon Center. Above us, thousands of Buddhists from around the world were making their way into the stands for a religious teaching. But before the day’s lesson would begin, their spiritual leader, alternately serious and jolly, had some political thoughts to impart.

He chortled as he pointed to Lobsang Sangay, 43, the former Harvard Law School researcher who was recently elected prime minister by Tibetans in exile. “This young man,” the Dalai Lama said gleefully, “he took my power.”

Unlike the Dalai Lama in his monk’s robes, the prime minister-elect was dressed in a politician’s sober dark suit, a symbol of the serious point beneath the Dalai Lama’s ribbing: After four centuries, Tibet has separated spiritual from political authority. The Tibetan government is democratizing. The Chinese Communist Party, the Dalai Lama is too polite to say explicitly, might do well t o follow suit.

Born in 1935, and having fled Communist China in 1959, the Dalai Lama takes a long view. Initially, he said, he believed that the Communists, who took power in 1949, had principles — that they were “dedicated to the people.” But Mao Zedong’s emphasis on ideology proved “unrealistic” — a tactful understatement of policies that led to the starvation of tens of millions — and Mao’s succ essor, Deng Xiaoping, realized that China had to embrace capitalism and allow people to improve their living standards.

So today’s China, he continued, is entirely different from Mao’s. The economy is thriving and connected with the world. Thousands of Chinese have studied abroad.

But capitalism without an independent judiciary or a free press, the Dalai Lama said, brings a “very bad side effect: corruption.” And rising power without transparency breeds fear and suspicion among China’s neighbors.

“They always say, ‘We have no intention to expand,’ “ he said. “I tell my Chinese friends, if everything is transparent and policy is open, there is no need to keep saying that. And if everything is a state secret, then you can 1,000 times deny such intentions, and still no one will believe you.”

The upshot: The United States and other free countries were right to open trade with China and help bring it into the mainstream of global commerce. “Now the free world has a responsibility to bring China into the mainstream of world democracy.”

But, he said, it makes sense to start by urging gradual progress: legal reform, and an end to internal censorship.

You might think President Barack Obama would be interested in discussing these matters with his fellow Nobel peace laureate (the Dalai Lama was awarded his in 1989), but it’s not so simple. Obama declined to meet with him in October 2009, then welcomed him to the White House four months later; this week, administration officials have declined to say whether another meeting will take plac e. The absence of clarity only encourages Beijing’s bullying and discourages other world leaders from engaging with the Tibetan leader.

Meanwhile, a half-century of exile has not tempered his optimism. Noting that even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has talked about the need for political reform, the Dalai Lama said that intellectuals and party members understand the contradictions in the current state of affairs. “Things will change,” he said.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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