The NEWSWEEK 50: The Dalai Lama, Tibet

People used to say that Pope John Paul II's power increased as he aged; at 73, the Dalai Lama is the same way. The more he speaks, the more he travels, the more word of his ill health leaks out (he recently had a gallbladder operation), the more he matters. Now, thanks in part to the high visibility of Tibet-China relations during the 2008 Olympics, the religious and political head of Tibetans presides over a diplomatic situation that looks ready to combust. For decades the Dalai Lama has advocated a "middle way": he has said he wants autonomy, not independence, for his people; he would be happy for Tibet to remain part of China in exchange for protection of Tibetan education, culture and religion. In an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, he even said he would accept China's communist rule. But after eight unproductive rounds of talks with Beijing, members of the exile community are fed up; some are advocating violent resistance and a fight for independence. (Story continued below...)

Every signal the Dalai Lama sends is freighted with importance. His ill health earlier this year prompted a call of sympathy from President Bush, interpreted by the Tibetan community as support for their cause. A meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the Chinese to cancel their talks with leaders of the European Union. Meanwhile, how the Dalai Lama chooses to handle the issue of succession is key. Will he turn back centuries of tradition to appoint his own successor? Or will he separate his roles in the next generation? Tibet's political leader could be an adult, after all, while its religious head could be, as it has always been, the Dalai Lama's reincarnation: a baby.