Leading article: The symbolism of reconciliation

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Quietly but nonetheless perceptibly a feeling is growing that the half-century stand-off between Beijing and the Dalai Lama could be about to be eased, starting with a visit by Tibet's spiritual leader to China.

No one can be certain that the ice is actually going to break between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama, who was forced to flee Tibet in 1959. The Dalai Lama has long said that he wanted a rapprochement and was wiling to accept formal Chinese rule of Tibet as the price. But his intent has never been trusted either by Beijing, which wishes to integrate Tibet under Chinese suzerainty as tightly as possible, or by Tibetan nationalists, who want their leader to have nothing to do with a regime that has oppressed their people and sought to root out its culture.

If there is a sense of a thaw now it arises far more from the timing than any concrete evidence of changed attitudes in Beijing. The Dalai Lama is 70 and, by suggesting a visit to China, would clearly like to kick-start a gradual process of reconciliation. Equally the Chinese, under heavy pressure from the West and anxious to improve their political reputation to match their global economic reach, would like the Tibetan issue to be quietened down, if not finally resolved. They may not accept - indeed they positively reject - the unique position of the Dalai Lama as the spiritual and secular head of the Tibetan people, but they may now prefer to deal with him than face the turmoil and rebellion that might follow his demise.

To allow the Dalai Lama to visit the Buddhist holy sites in China while keeping him away from Tibet might be a useful device for disarming China's critics abroad, especially if the news could be announced just before the visit of President Hu Jintao to Washington later this month. The central condition, Beijing insists, would have to be that he promised to declare his acceptance of Chinese rule.

That may be fine in diplomatic terms. The Dalai Lama abandoned his call for independence in 1988 and has instead sought a degree of self-rule within Chinese control. But even that may be too much for a Chinese communist government that has arrested monks, taken political control of monasteries, poured in Chinese immigrants and completed a $3bn railway to open up communications with the country, all in a clear effort to overwhelm a separate Tibetan culture and religious faith. The Dalai Lama may be right to try and open the door a little in the hope of using the leverage to open it still further. But those who believe in a distinct Tibetan culture and people should be wary of Beijing using the symbolism of reconciliation to mask the reality of continued suppression.

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