The Dalai Lama is not the only Tibetan whom China fears

As Tibet's spiritual leader meets the US president Barack Obama today, China is putting its anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric into overdrive.

As Tibet's spiritual leader meets the US president Barack Obama today, China is putting its anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric into overdrive. The invectives are flowing from Beijing, and warnings of political and economic fallout are rampant. "Cancel immediately," one Chinese official warned. Expect "serious damage" to Sino-US ties if he didn't, warned another. All headline grabbing sound bites, for sure, but completely beside the point. In Beijing's war on Tibetans abroad, it's the unspoken that's the most telling.

Behind these remarks is a concerted Chinese offensive to de-legitimise Tibetans in exile, and undermine their support from governments and advocates abroad, experts on China and Tibet say. In Nepal, which is home to the world's second largest population of exiled Tibetans (roughly 20,000 by last count), Beijing has pushed hard for a broad crack down on Tibetan refugees. And human rights groups say Nepalese leaders are bending to Chinese demands, locking up Tibetan protesters, pressuring local businessmen, even threatening to deport new arrivals.

Beyond China's near abroad is evidence of even more aggressive tactics. In dozens of interviews in recent months, Tibetans and Tibet experts around the world told me of a multi-pronged campaign of political pressure, espionage, and old-fashioned Cold War-era propaganda. In places like Russia and Malawi, China is buying newspaper ads with messages of Tibetans' happiness, and challenges to the Dalai Lama's reading of history. In Dharamsala, India, Beijing beams in Chinese television from Tibet, easily accessible and heavy on state doctrine.

Chinese message control has even surfaced on the West Coast of the United States. Last month, consulate officials in Los Angeles unsuccessfully sought to steamroll the screening of a documentary on the Tibetan independence struggle from an international film festival. Darryl Macdonald, director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, said he was bombarded with frantic phone calls, tense meetings, and not-so-veiled threats to end cross-cultural co-operation.

Mr Macdonald didn't budge. The film was screened, selling out when it did. But the message he heard was clear: "They don't want Tibet to be looked upon as a once independent country that has been invaded by China." Chinese officials, for their part, accuse the Tibetan leadership in exile of fomenting instability on the Tibetan plateau, including an eruption of violence in March 2008. As Tibetans observe their New Year this week, security has reportedly been heightened in cities where the deadliest protests took place two years ago. For now, Chinese leaders appear intent on preventing a repeat of 2008, seeking to win Tibetan favour by vowing to improve the living standards on the roof of the world.

And yet, the attacks on Tibetans abroad continue. Lhadon Tethong, a former director of Students for a Free Tibet, says most concerning to her are Chinese efforts to zero in on Tibet advocates to "break the networks and the connections between Tibetans in exile and Tibetans in Tibet". She says she's lost count of the number of times her group's e-mail accounts have been spammed, hacked, or otherwise disrupted.

Tibetan security experts say they, too, have seen an uptick in China's spy craft. One senior official in northern India, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, accused Chinese spies of seeking secrets about the Dalai Lama's health. One tactic, he said: enlisting Tibetan pilgrims to smuggle Dalai Lama DNA - his hair, even urine - out of India for testing. There's no evidence such genetic gamesmanship is underway, and China has long denied allegations of its purported foreign exploits. But China has every reason to take interest in the 74-year-old monk's well-being.

When the Dalai Lama dies, Tibetans will lose not only a revered spiritual leader, but also the most vocal advocate of non-violent resistance. Some young Tibetans, when asked privately, say they can envision a return to violence when the Nobel Prize winning monk passes. As protests in March 2008 illustrate, Tibetan frustration over China's rule does have the potential to come to a bloody boil. For now, China's answer to maintaining internal stability means focusing on its volatile Tibetan minority - both at home and abroad. In 2007 Beijing put in play a measure that all reincarnated Tibetan lamas, including the Dalai Lama, be approved by the Chinese government, to gain greater control of Tibetan political and religious affairs.

Adam Segal, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says China's targeting of Tibetans is derived primarily from its desire to maintain domestic territorial sovereignty amid an increasingly nationalist Han population. Robert J Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University, says while China's tactics may infuriate Tibetans and their supporters, it's critical to understand them.

"What's important about it is not that this is happening all the time to many, many people, but that it means it's important to China," Barnett tells me. "It's the only thing we should take away. We shouldn't take away an image that China is mean, naughty, breaking the rules. It isn't breaking the rules. "It's just playing the game of protecting its own interests rather better than most countries."

Greg Bruno is a writer for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute