LHASA, Tibet — There’s a new type of pilgrim spinning the prayer wheels at Tibet’s holiest sites.
Along with the Tibetans who prostrate themselves before the vacant throne of their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, swarms of Chinese tourists rub crisp Chinese money on their foreheads and then cram the bills into collection boxes.
In matching tour group hats, the Chinese visitors bow at Tibetan shrines, light candles and ring temple bells. Style-conscious young women try the Tibetan look, weaving bright strips of cloth into their black hair.
“This is a mystical place, a bit of heaven on Earth,” said Tang Wei, a manager at a government-owned software company in Beijing. “Even though it’s undeveloped, life here is good. People have their own peace in life and contentment in work.”
As for the Dalai Lama, condemned by Beijing as a traitor, “he doesn’t sound so bad to me,” Mr. Tang said.
More than four decades after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet during an unsuccessful revolt against Chinese rule, Beijing’s efforts to diminish and discredit him have failed.
Living across the border in India, he is widely known in China and abroad.
“He is far better known than any figure in the Chinese government,” said Alison Reynolds, director of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign.
In Tibet itself, where his picture is banned, tourists from Beijing and Shanghai hike the pilgrim routes and turn the metal prayer wheels imprinted with Buddhist scripture and set in rows outside temples. With each spin, they are said to send a prayer to heaven.
It reveals “a spiritual hunger that Chinese have to know more about Buddhism,” said Kate Saunders of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet. “I think that’s a sign of hope for the future.”
The Chinese government deeply distrusts religion as pulling allegiance away from the ruling Communist Party.
It limits the numbers of monks and forces them to attend lessons in communist theory. As many as 200 persons are believed to be in prison on charges of undermining China’s rule over Tibet, according to the Free Tibet Campaign.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry routinely denounces what it says is a separatist campaign by the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has said repeatedly he wants not independence for Tibet but more autonomy to protect its unique Buddhist culture.
China has held four rounds of talks with his envoys since 2002, the most recent on June 30 and July 1 in Switzerland, according to officials of his government in exile.
“It’s very difficult to say what the top Chinese leadership is thinking,” Ms. Saunders said.
She suggests that difficulties in stifling Tibetan Buddhism could lead Beijing to bring back the Dalai Lama, since only he would have the moral authority to get Tibetans to adhere to China’s formula of limited autonomy.
After all, “Why haven’t the Tibetan people resorted to violence?” Ms. Saunders said. “The sole factor is the Dalai Lama’s leadership.”
As long as the 70-year-old leader is alive, Beijing can negotiate with a known entity. But China’s communists also might see the Dalai Lama’s popularity as a threat to their monopoly on power.
At the stunning red-and-white Potala Palace that looms over the Tibetan capital, pilgrims fall to their knees and lie flat on their stomachs before the Dalai Lama’s empty throne.
They get up, then slide back down, again and again. Sweat forms on their brows. Government security cameras record every move.
A Chinese tour guide explains that these Tibetans are praying to the previous Dalai Lamas and not the current one who lives in India.
It’s a clever fiction that doesn’t fool anyone.
“We hope he comes back soon,” said monk Nyima Tsering, vice chairman of the government-appointment management committee at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.
The Dalai Lama’s authority, he said, is “something from history that will never change.”
Tibet’s god-king, he added, could help forge better relations with Beijing.
“For thousands of years, the Chinese emperors were involved with religion,” he said. “What’s important is harmony. If there’s only economic growth, that’s not good.”
Even in booming China, it’s a message that resonates.
“I’m not a Buddhist, but like most Chinese I understand Buddhist traditions,” said Mr. Tang, the software company manager.
“Mankind should be imbued with fraternal love,” he said. “No matter your nationality, we all want to live happily together under the same blue sky.”