Almost half a century after he fled to India, the Dalai Lama has raised the extraordinary prospect of travelling to Beijing and holding face-to-talks with the Chinese regime in an effort to resolve Tibet's most serious crisis for two decades.
Having watched helplessly from exile as his Tibetan homeland has suffered under Chinese rule, the man regarded as a living god by millions of his followers said yesterday that he was ready to negotiate personally with the Chinese leadership. The Dalai Lama, 73, acknowledged the difficulty associated with a face-to-face summit, but said he was even ready to meet President Hu Jintao, notorious in Tibet for his hardline approach when he served as Tibet's local Communist leader. "I am always ready to meet the Chinese leaders, and particularly Hu Jintao. I am very happy to meet," he told a small group of journalists at his office in Dharamsala. "But as I mentioned earlier, to go to Beijing and meet leaders... that would be big news. Many Tibetans would think... may develop some unrealistic expectations. I have to think very carefully."
While a visit to Beijing would leave him open to criticism of appeasing the Chinese, the undertaking the Dalai Lama gave yesterday underlines his desperate wish to avoid further bloodshed in the country of his birth.
Seeking to put pressure on China, he said he was willing to travel to Beijing in a matter of weeks if there was a "concrete indication" that the Chinese authorities were prepared to negotiate and if the protests in Tibet had concluded. His spokesman later confirmed that while he did not wish to simply provide the Chinese with a photo-opportunity that could be used against him, he was ready to discuss a "mutually agreeable solution" to the issue of Tibet.
The remarkable prospect of a summit between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership – either in Beijing or elsewhere – came as China said police had opened fire and wounded four Tibetan protesters in Sichuan province and arrested dozens of others who had ignored a deadline to end the most serious demonstrations to rock Tibet for more than two decades.
Earlier this week, the Chinese leadership indicated it would be prepared to talk to the Dalai Lama if he stopped "separatist activities" and recognised Tibet and Taiwan as parts of China. Gordon Brown told the Commons on Wednesday that the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, had told him he was ready to meet the Dalai Lama if he renounced violence. But assessing the genuine intentions of the Chinese leadership remains at best a guessing game. Beijing is concerned about sullying its reputation ahead of the upcoming Olympic Games, but while giving an undertaking to meet the Dalai Lama, various Chinese officials have continued to demonise him and accuse him and his "clique" of orchestrating the demonstrations in Tibet.
"For the Dalai Lama, we not only listen to what he says, but more importantly, we focus on what he does," said the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang. "He has said he is not a separatist. But all of his propositions and actions prove that he has never stopped his splittist words and deeds."
The Dalai Lama knows his only real leverage as head of a Tibetan government in exile is in winning over international opinion to his cause. Today he is due to meet Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, while tomorrow he is scheduled to have lunch with the actor Richard Gere in Delhi. Both have supported him for many years.
Winning the backing of camera-friendly celebrities and power-wielding politicians has long been the strength of the smiling and avuncular 1989 Nobel laureate. Laughing, joking and yet utterly serious all in the space of a sentence, this is a role he continues to play to perfection as the cause to which he has devoted his life receives unprecedented world attention. Never more than now has he needed to stress the importance of non-violent protest and the limited nature of the movement's demands.
"The Chinese constitution already mentions autonomy [for Tibet]. So that should not be just a word on paper but implemented on the spot," he said, sitting in front of a statue of the Buddha. "The whole world knows Dalai Lama is not seeking independence, one hundred times, a thousand times I have repeated this. It is my mantra – we are not seeking independence."
In Beijing, the authorities admitted for the first time that the often violent protests that swept through Lhasa 10 days ago in protest against Chinese rule had spread to other Tibetan communities in additional provinces. Subsequently, the government has dispatched more troops and paramilitaries across the region as it seeks to reassert its control in those areas. It has banned the media and foreign tourists from travelling to the region.
Precisely how many people have been killed or injured as a result of the protests and the subsequent crackdown is unclear. The Chinese government says 16 people have died while the Tibetan exiles say the number stands at 80. On walls and buildings throughout Dharamsala, exiles have posted graphic and disturbing photographs of Tibetans apparently killed by Chinese police or soldiers.
"It's horrible. There are many bodies. The Chinese are holding the bodies," claimed Tenzin Thangh, who was participating in a candlelit vigil through the main street of the town – a procession that has become a nightly occurrence. "The soldiers are going into all parts of Tibet."
From Dharamsala, a former British hill station established on the peaceful fringe of the Himalayas, Chinese accusations regarding the Dalai Lama's ability to direct events in Tibet and the description of him as "a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast", appear little short of preposterous. Indeed, his cautious "middle way" approach has been criticised by some Tibetans, including the Tibetan Youth Congress which seeks full independence from China. While many younger Tibetans have been outspoken in their criticism of the Dalai Lama's tactics, in recent days they have halted such comments in an apparent effort not to appear divided at a crucial juncture.
What certainly does not seem in doubt is the reverence with which he is held as the community's religious leader. Before meeting reporters yesterday, the Dalai Lama spent time in the flower-filled gardens of the compound receiving and blessing various visitors, including a family who had travelled secretly from Shanghai.
Asked later how he felt about the personal insults that Chinese officials had directed towards him, he said such comments mattered little to him. He also said he did not believe that the international community was taken in by what the Chinese said.
"As a Buddhist monk, it does not matter what they call me," he said with a chuckle. "The outside world doesn't believe that I am [a] devil."