SALT LAKE CITY — Tibet's Dalai Lama was in my city last week as part of an American tour of cities where Tibetan exiles have found refuge and new lives.
"I am an ordinary man," he told a group of us at a breakfast meeting. "There is nothing special about me."
But, of course, there is. He is a global celebrity, hobnobbing with stars like Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn. He is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the symbol of a Tibet-that-is-not-free.
For a man whose land is held in communist China's thrall, he has a remarkable sense of equanimity and inner Buddhist calm. He preaches nonviolence and mutual respect.
"China is a great nation," he says. "Things are getting worse in Tibet, but the power of the gun will not remain in the long run."
Yet there is a poignancy - almost a farewell poignancy - about this trip of his to visit with Tibetan exiles in America, some of whom have fled torture and persecution in their homeland, but some of whom have never set foot there.
He urges them to speak Tibetan in their homes. He urges them to treasure Tibetan culture and tradition. He says that the institution of the Dalai Lama may fade away at some point. He says that if he and his people are ever allowed to return to Tibet, he will abandon his role as temporal leader and retain only his spiritual influence.
Yet though he says people inside Tibet look to him with faith, trust, and hope, he must know in his heart that the chapter has closed on their hopes for independence, and that the prospect of his leaving his own exile in the Indian city of Dharamsala to return to a position of influence in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa is slender.
The Chinese occupation of Tibet now has lasted for half a century. Beijing terms it a "national autonomous region" of China. The Dalai Lama has been in exile for 42 years. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, headquartered in Washington, 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of China's policies since 1959, and 6,000 monasteries and other cultural buildings have been destroyed. The Tibetan culture has been marginalized.
In March of this year, on the 42nd anniversary of his exile, the Dalai Lama issued a statement declaring that if allowed to return to Tibet "with a certain degree of freedom," he would agree not to hold any position in the Tibetan government.
"I have always believed that in the future, Tibet should follow a secular and democratic system of governance," he wrote, adding that he now has decided to transfer day-to-day responsibility of running the Tibetan government-in-exile to an elected parliament in exile. He supports letting Tibetans inside Tibet choose their own destiny through a freely held referendum.
To date the reaction from Beijing has been stony lack of interest.
Around the world there is some emotional support for the Tibetans' plight, but nary a government is willing to risk China's displeasure - and the loss of burgeoning economic ties - by challenging China's suzerainty over Tibet.
China reclaimed Portuguese Macao and British Hong Kong without a whimper of a reaction. China fully intends to do the same with Taiwan, but Taiwan is a very different case.
It has a vibrant industrialized economy, a sturdy defense force, and a powerful ally (the United States), whose president has just declared that his country would come to Taiwan's aid in the event of an assault by Beijing.
By contrast, Tibet is undeveloped and remote, and no government of record contemplates coming to its aid to overturn a 50-year occupation by China.
In February, the Chinese government announced plans to build a railway line from Golmud, in western China, to Lhasa, a distance of more than 2,000 miles.
According to Tibetan exiles quoted by The (London) Economist magazine, this will hasten resettlement of Chinese workers in Tibet and exploitation of its oil and gas resources.
Last week, the Dalai Lama told us that he sensed a "warm feeling towards Tibet in the United States, a feeling among students, and in the administration." That warmth may be genuine, but if there is to be any new course in the sad, sad story of Tibet's anguish under China's rule, it will be dictated by Beijing, not Washington. It is a prospect that seems unlikely.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor