China may be more than a hundred miles away over a clear Himalayan horizon, but it is casting a huge shadow over this week's special meeting of exiled Tibetans, as is the mortality of the Dalai Lama and the future of the struggle to preserve their culture and religion.
The six-day meeting was called by the Dalai Lama here in the home of his government in exile to consider fundamental questions: Should Tibetans maintain his "middle way" approach, which acknowledges China's sovereignty over their land, in hopes of securing greater autonomy? Or should they adopt a more hard-line approach favored by many younger Tibetans advocating a struggle for independence?
At one level, the talks here among hundreds of Tibetans are meaningless. China can do what it wants, and it usually does. Their government in exile has no jurisdiction and no country to govern, and this week's meetings lack a formal agenda. Even if a conclusion is reached, the results are not binding.
"China holds all the cards," said Tsering Shakya, a historian and professor at the University of British Columbia.
Still, Shakya noted, "there's an urgency among Tibetans to get an agreement before the Dalai Lama is no longer among them."
Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1951, and since then Beijing has spent billions of dollars trying to integrate the vast, sparsely populated territory, which accounts for over a quarter of China's landmass. Over the past half a century, the region has seen a series of uprisings followed by harsh crackdowns, capped by widespread rioting in March of this year. Beijing and representatives of the Dalai Lama have held periodic talks since 2001 without notable progress.
Some Tibetans hope that they can convince China to ease its iron grip by keeping to what they consider the moral high ground and encouraging international pressure on Beijing.
China, not surprisingly, sees the equation differently. Beijing is gambling that the eventual departure of the charismatic 73-year-old Dalai Lama, who was hospitalized last month and had gallstones removed, will reduce international pressure. That in turn could ease resistance internally among China's 6 million ethnic Tibetan citizens, the leadership in Beijing hopes.
In Dharmsala, delegates mingle and chat, greeting each other on the narrow mountain roads. Most are outspoken in their differing opinions. "The debate spills over in the evenings into the bars and cafes," said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet, who flew in from London. "It's an amazing atmosphere."
Traditionalists believe, as unexciting as it may be, that slow but steady pressure is the best strategy until either some cataclysmic event or the ascension of a more pluralistic government in Beijing causes the Chinese to relax their controls.
"Unless we can move to the moon, we have to talk to the Chinese," Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother and a former president of the Tibet Cabinet in exile, told reporters Wednesday.
"We're not breaking away, we're not asking for independence."
But others in the exile community, including many who have watched the recent creation of nations such as East Timor and Kosovo, argue that accommodation doesn't work.
"I was the first Tibetan to publicly state the 'middle way' is unworkable and therefore unacceptable," said Lhasang Tsering, former head of the Tibetan Youth Congress. "All means are justified. As a Buddhist, my intent is not to kill, but I accept that lives may be lost" in the struggle for independence.
The meetings also reflect a vacuum within the Tibetan movement. And it's not only the Dalai Lama's death that's a concern; his worsening health or incapacity could prevent him from traveling, meeting with foreign leaders and keeping up international pressure.
Beijing is under relatively little pressure. It has strong domestic support for its policy, particularly after Tibetans attacked Han Chinese during the March riots. Its economy and military power are expanding rapidly. And it continues to encourage more Han Chinese migration into Tibet. And the Tibetans risk losing vital support from governments in Europe and North America by calling for independence.
The movement has a fundamental tension between Tibetans inside their homeland, many illiterate, and the estimated 500,000 exiles. Many of those inside China have braved jail, torture and loss of income for the Dalai Lama, whom they see as godlike. Abroad, the exiles' view of him tends to be more temporal and political, more laced with the intrigue of a scattered community that sees him at least as much as a man as a god.
For China, which this week sent official Zhu Weiqun before the world's cameras to slam the meetings and the Dalai Lama, there has been a marked defensiveness. Zhu accused the spiritual leader of trying to carry out "ethnic cleansing" of Han Chinese.
While Beijing's exaggerated language is largely for domestic consumption, it suggests the government is under pressure from hard-liners within the Communist Party and military. China's Tibet policy is associated with President Hu Jintao, who, some say, needs to protect his flank and appear tough in the wake of the embarrassing March riots.
Closely connected is the lingering question China would rather not ask aloud: How has it failed so miserably to win Tibetan hearts and minds despite pouring in so much money and political capital over many decades?
"I think more thoughtful people really believe the Tibet policy needs a serious re-think," said Mei Renyi, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
"But certainly the mass turmoil in March might give voice to those who advocate a harder line."