The Dalai Lama is fond of describing himself as "a simple Buddhist monk". He is, of course, no such thing. As well as being the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, he is also the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Gordon Brown hopes to make a distinction between the two by meeting him on Friday at the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than inviting him to Downing Street.
Something similar happened in Germany last week when the Dalai Lama arrived there at the start of his five-country Western tour (Australia, the United States and France are next), a trip which will keep him in the headlines in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing in August. His three-month itinerary will conclude only days before the Olympics end, and his intention is clearly to keep China's suppression of Tibet, where troops killed 200 people in March, in the mind of the international public.
The Chinese government has, predictably, reacted with intense irritation – which is why the Dalai Lama found such a cool reception in Berlin. When Chancellor Angela Merkel met him last September, she caused a nine-month freeze in relations with Beijing which is only just beginning to thaw. It also caused a split within the German coalition government. This time, Germany's Chancellor, President and Foreign Minister all declined to meet him. The Dalai Lama was received only by the lowly Development Minister, and in a hotel rather than her office. Even then the Chinese filed a formal complaint, insisting that, though the Dalai Lama says he does not want independence for Tibet, only autonomy, his actions indicate the opposite. As with Taiwan, he is a threat to Beijing's one-China policy.
On one level, the over-cautious attitude of Gordon Brown and other Western politicians is understandable. China's economy is expected to grow by 10 per cent this year. It is a huge potential market for British firms in areas such as financial, legal and professional services and, thanks to Mr Brown, premier Wen Jiabao has agreed to increase Britain's trade in goods and services with China from £20bn to £30bn in the next two years. The German Chancellor and the French President want the same.
Even so, Mr Brown ought to be able to voice concern over human rights. China's elections, like its courts, are controlled by the Communist Party. It restricts free movement and curbs trade unions. It censors the internet. It is the death penalty capital of the world. Yet what its response to the terrible Sichuan earthquake has shown, in sharp contrast to Burma, is a government which is increasingly sensitive to the needs of its ordinary people. Opening the economy to market forces has shifted the relationship between government and the workforce who are driving economic growth forward.
Gordon Brown has a fine line to tread here, which he has tried to signal with semiotics like declining to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games but going to the closing ceremony. But in refusing to invite the Dalai Lama to Downing Street, he is being pusillanimous. There are signs of slow political change in Beijing. It is making more encouraging noises on climate change. It helped with nuclear negotiations with North Korea. It has pressed the Burmese generals to accept international aid. China is slowly coming in from the cold.
Offering constructive criticism on Tibet – expressing concern about human rights without supporting separatism or secession – ought to be possible within that maturing relationship. Speaking out against repression and representing Britain's economic interests must both be possible at the same time.