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Yet even as the Dalai Lama has managed to make all these breakthroughs in the exile world, in Tibet itself he has made little visible progress over the past 50 years. Every Tibetan I've met remains immovably devoted to him. And yet, as he said to me 12 years ago, "in spite of my open approach of maximum concessions, the Chinese position becomes even harder and harder." The violence that broke out recently was a harrowing reminder of the fact that 98% of Tibetans have no access to their leader and are denied the most basic of freedoms. And in return for talking of interdependence and the need to stop even thinking in terms of enemies, the Dalai Lama is known in Beijing as a "splittist" and the "enemy of the Tibetan people."
Indeed, his very determination to speak for openness and a long-term vision has sometimes brought him critics on every side. Some conservative Tibetan clerics believe he has been too radical in jettisoning old Tibetan customs, while some Western Buddhists, graduates of the revolutions of the '60s, wish he did not speak out against divorce or sexual license. True to his Buddhist precepts, he has not called for Tibetan independence from China for more than 20 years; he seeks only autonomy, whereby China could control Tibetans' defense and foreign affairs so long as Tibetans have sovereignty over everything else. But more and more Tibetans in exile ask how they can sit by and practice nonviolence while their homes and families are being wiped out by the Chinese occupation. "Why is he thinking of the future and not the present, the past?" asks an outspoken Tibetan in Dharamsala who once fought with the cia-trained guerrillas violently resisting the Chinese. "I want freedom in this world, not from this world."
In July 2006 Chinese authorities intensified what the Dalai Lama calls "demographic aggression" by launching a high-speed train linking Lhasa to Beijing and other Chinese cities, thus allowing 6,000 more Han Chinese to flood into the Tibetan capital every day. Lhasa, sometimes known as an "abode of the gods," has turned from the small traditional settlement I first saw in 1985 into an Eastern Las Vegas, with a population of 300,000 (two out of every three of them Chinese). On the main streets alone, by one Western scholar's count, there are 238 dance halls and karaoke parlors and 658 brothels, and the Potala Palacefor centuries a symbol of a culture whose people were ruled by a monk and home to nine Dalai Lamasis now mockingly surrounded by an amusement park.
Yet the Dalai Lama, true to his thinking, points out that the Beijing-Lhasa train is neither good nor bad. "It is a form of progress, of material development," I heard him say four months ago, adding that Tibetans understand that for their material well-being, it is of benefit to be part of the People's Republic. The only important thing, he pointed out, was how its rulers use the train and whether they deploy it for compassionate purposes or not.
It can almost seem, in considering Tibet, as if two different visions of freedom are colliding. For Buddhists, liberation traditionally means freedom from ignorance and so from the suffering it brings. For Chinese pledged to material development, freedom simply means liberation from the past, from religion and from backwardness. According to the Dalai Lama, at the sixth and most recent round of regular talks between Chinese officials and a delegation of Tibetans, the Chinese said, "There is no Tibet issue. Everything in Tibet is very smooth." To which the exiled Tibetans said, "If things are really as good as you say they are, then why don't you let us come and see the reality?"