Beijing's block vote

In a video blog from Dharamsala in northern India, where last week 500 Tibetans gathered to discuss the future of the struggle, two members of the radical Students for a Free Tibet explained their position. It was perfectly possible, they said, to hold the Dalai Lama in deep respect while disagreeing with his policy. The spiritual leader's "middle way", they argued, had failed. History showed there was nothing to be gained by moderation in the face of Chinese intransigence.

The meeting closed with a strong condemnation of Chinese policies and a reaffirmation of the exiles' faith in the Dalai Lama. But the frustration of younger Tibetans, most of whom have never set foot in the land their parents and grandparents fled nearly 50 years ago, is increasingly evident. When, in 1988, the Dalai Lama proclaimed the "middle way" - to argue peacefully, not for independence but for meaningful autonomy within the People's Republic - many younger Tibetans felt angry and betrayed. Today, they point to the failure of the long effort to negotiate with an increasingly hardline Beijing. As the Dalai Lama himself admits, those years of restraint have borne no fruit.

The talks that began five years ago have yielded nothing. This month a senior Chinese official no longer troubled to disguise what many observers suspected was the real Chinese policy - to spin the process out, make no concessions and wait for the Dalai Lama, now in his 70s, to die. Last week a noted Chinese scholar spelled out the Chinese view. "In 20 years," he told me, "there will be no more Tibet. They will all be Chinese."

The professor had never been to Tibet. He was repeating the official view that the Dalai Lama is the source of all troubles - despite repeated policy failures and evidence to the contrary. In the 70s, Chinese officials in Tibet told Beijing that Tibetans had turned away from religion and embraced socialism, only to be confounded in the 80s by the devotion displayed to the Dalai Lama's envoys and by a series of revolts in Lhasa. By the turn of the century, officials were convinced that rising living standards, Chinese migration and rapid integration with the rest of the country would encourage Tibetans to identify with Beijing's larger economic and political project - only to be dismayed this year by the most serious uprising in nearly half a century.

The troubles in March affected the whole of the Tibetan polity, secular and religious, and included regions in which the Dalai Lama's influence had been slight. Beijing's response was not to re-examine the colonial policies that have alienated many Tibetans, but to describe the Dalai Lama as a "wolf" and to accuse him of originating the revolt.

There are few secrets in Dharamsala. The Tibetan community is easily penetrated, and this year British computer experts discovered that the exile government's computers had been thoroughly compromised by cyber espionage. If there were real evidence of the Dalai Lama's agency in the March uprising, it is unlikely Beijing would have failed to produce it. In the face of Chinese intransigence, the Dalai Lama's response is rational: if the Chinese are waiting for him to die, then his people must prepare for the post-Dalai Lama era. Last week's meeting, from which he pointedly absented himself, was an attempt to encourage them to form their own policies in his absence.

He hopes they will continue to follow the argument for peace and autonomy that they reaffirmed in their closing statement. If the Chinese respond, the Dalai Lama could still use his moral authority to deliver acceptance of a compromise. But Beijing's policies have bred frustration even among his most devoted followers. If Beijing continues to stall, many will choose a different path and China will have squandered its best prospect of a peaceful settlement.

Isabel Hilton