A new attempt to undermine the Dalai Lama's status as religious leader of Tibet appears to be under way, with mainland officials and media issuing unusually strong criticism of him. Tibet watchers appear surprised by the severity of the campaign, especially as it comes at a time when the central government is engaged in quiet negotiations with representatives of the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan religious leader fled his homeland 47 years ago, setting up his government in exile in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala. 'It's a major policy shift,' said Robbie Barnett, professor of Contemporary Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. But he said the policy was 'logical' from a Chinese point of view. 'Even if it seems paradoxical, it could be in Beijing's interests to malign the Dalai Lama at the same time as claiming to negotiate with him - the attacks weaken his standing with his base and they could put pressure on him to make yet more concessions,' he said. The attacks, which he said were related to the party's anger over the Dalai Lama's continued hold over Tibetans, had been co-ordinated across the spectrum of the state media, Professor Barnett said, including the People's Daily, Xinhua, the English-language China Daily and the Tibet Daily. The campaign 'clearly has high-level central endorsement'. Kate Saunders, of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: 'The leadership of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is showing high levels of hostility to the Dalai Lama, not to mention seeking to undermine his credibility as a religious leader. There is no doubt that this approach has the support of the party elite.' On July 18, the China Tibet Information Centre under the State Council Information Office posted a signed commentary on its website titled 'On the 'middle way' of the Dalai Lama'. The article criticised the Dalai Lama's 'middle way' approach, under which he has called for autonomy for Tibet similar to that given to Hong Kong and Macau, saying it was a 'swindle', and that 'nothing stands between his high-level autonomy and Tibetan independence'. The article appeared on the websites of the People's Daily, Xinhua, the China Daily and other sites soon after. Ms Saunders said the article was unusual in that it went into so much detail and appeared in so many different publications and websites. Some of the harshest statements were made by Tibetan party secretary Zhang Qingli in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. Xinhua quoted some of the comments in an article titled 'Dalai Lama short of religious leader', which in turn appeared on other websites, including the People's Daily and China Daily. The article was accompanied by a large colour photo of the Dalai Lama, normally forbidden on the mainland, which showed the typically smiling Tibetan religious leader with what appeared to be an angry scowl. Mr Zhang, a hardliner and the previous commander of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organisation, referred to the Dalai Lama as 'unworthy' of being called a religious leader, accusing him of trying to 'ally himself with anti-China forces and publicise his separatist beliefs which deviate from the practice of religion'. The article also repeated an earlier quote by Jampa Phuntsok, chairman of Tibet, describing the Dalai Lama as 'a politician in Buddhist robes and Italian shoes', words originally spoken by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Professor Barnett said a diatribe against the Dalai Lama that appeared in the Tibet Daily on July 12, titled 'Must realise the reactionary nature of the Dalai', contained language he had not seen in five or six years. Woeser, a well-known Tibetan writer, said the language used to attack the Dalai Lama was reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. 'It made me feel like the Cultural Revolution was coming back,' she said. Ms Saunders said the nature of the campaign was surprising because it was the first time in recent years that the Communist Party challenged the Dalai Lama's religious status, rather than his position as political leader of the Tibetan government in exile. Ms Saunders said the last time there were such attacks against the Dalai Lama was in 1987, when they set off massive unrest in Tibet. According to a knowledgeable source, the Tibetan government has required all government employees in Phenpo, a county in Tibet, to write 5,000- or 10,000-character critiques of the Dalai Lama, the length determined by the writer's position in the government. The order was 'more or less unheard of'. On May 10, Mr Zhang reminded Tibetan government employees to avoid religious rituals or practice. Meetings were held in work units to study the speech. Recent months have also seen a crackdown on Tibetan intellectuals. In January, Gendun, a teacher of Cham dancing, was sentenced to four years in prison after giving talks on Tibetan culture and history. Tibetan scholar Dolma Kyab recently reportedly received a 10-year prison sentence after an unpublished manuscript was found at his home. On July 28, officials of the United Front Department, which among other responsibilities also oversees Tibetan affairs, shut down two blogs by Woeser. Her books were already banned in China. Ms Saunders said the above incidents 'reflect a continued trend of the repression of literature or cultural expressions that the party views as a threat to its own supremacy'. Communist officials are clearly worried about incidents this year, which seem to repudiate Communist Party claims that the Dalai Lama's popularity is fading among Tibetans. Mr Zhang told Der Spiegel that 'the market for him here in Tibet is shrinking'. The most telling incident came in January, when thousands of Tibetans from around the world, including many from the mainland, flocked to India to attend a religious ceremony held by the Dalai Lama, where he made an emotional call for Tibetans to stop the use and sale of fur from wild animals. In what probably surprised the Dalai Lama as much as communist officials, Tibetans throughout China immediately started burning animal furs and traditional costumes that use fur. Nervous Chinese officials banned the burnings and arrested several Tibetans. While the speech was environmentally correct and had no political intent, Mr Barnett said Chinese officials saw it as a 'deliberate attempt' to interfere in Chinese affairs. He said they argued that the Dalai Lama 'should know how effective his words are'. 'From this government officials saw the strength of the Dalai Lama,' said Woeser. 'They were furious.' Official paranoia was not assuaged last month when an estimated 9,000 Tibetans - some travelling hundreds of kilometres - arrived at the Kumbum Monastery in the Amdo region of Qinghai province after a rumour spread that the Dalai Lama would make an appearance in the area, which is near his birthplace. 'They [Chinese officials] are surprised that there is still so much feeling in support of the Dalai Lama, even though he doesn't seem to be organising this,' said Professor Barnett. Officials in Qinghai tried to play down the incident, according to Reuters, saying that only 300 people were there.