BEIJING (Reuters) - The Dalai Lama may be the guest of honour of U.S. President George W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders, but you won't find Tibet's exiled spiritual leader on the Beijing Olympics guest list.
Also missing from the list is Ma Ying-jeou, the Harvard-educated, democratically elected president of self-ruled Taiwan which Beijing has claimed as its own since their split in 1949 amid civil war, despite a recent thaw in relations.
The Dalai Lama's appearance could have helped repair China's international image, which was dented by a government crackdown following rioting among Tibetans in March -- the worst in the Himalayan region since 1989. But China fears he would steal Chinese President Hu Jintao's thunder.
"It's supposed to be Hu Jintao's Olympics, but it'll become the Dalai Lama's Olympics if he attends," a source familiar with government policy said requesting anonymity.
The Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, had said during a visit to London in May that he hoped to attend the August 8-24 Games if talks between his envoys and China produced results.
China has not rejected the Dalai Lama's overtures outright, but hopes were dampened when the closed-door talks ended with the government-in-exile accusing China of lacking sincerity.
The Chinese government has blamed the Dalai Lama and his followers for instigating the March unrest and attempting to sabotage the Olympics, charges he has repeatedly denied.
For China, the Games are supposed to showcase the prosperity and modernization of what is now the world's fourth-biggest economy after three decades of economic reforms and rapid growth.
Ma is a different story. China has mixed feelings for the Taiwan president, who is opposed to Taiwan formally declaring independence, a stance Beijing welcomes.
But Ma has repeatedly urged China to politically reassess the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests -- anathema to the country's leaders.
Beijing has sought to push Taiwan into diplomatic isolation and considers the island a province that must eventually return to the fold, by force if necessary.
"(Dignitaries) attending the Olympic opening are all heads of state, but China does not recognize Taiwan as a state," Taiwan political analyst Andrew Yang said by telephone.
"How will (Hu Jintao) address Ma Ying-jeou? 'Taiwanese leader' won't be acceptable to the Taiwan people or Ma."
Hawks in the Chinese government are opposed to the Dalai Lama's visit, worried that thousands of Tibetans would flock to Beijing by plane, train, bus or horseback to catch a glimpse of their revered god-king, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
There are more than 10 ministerial-level government and Communist Party bodies with a stake in blocking the Dalai Lama's return, including the local governments of Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security, the People's Liberation Army and the paramilitary People's Armed Police.
For China, domestic stability during the Olympics is far more important than international applause.
"Even if there are people who want to change things, they would have all sorts of worries," Wang Lixiong, a Chinese author and expert on Tibet, said in an interview.
"In China, government officials do not hope for achievements but they hope to avoid committing mistakes," Wang said, referring to political risks for the leadership.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)