Invitation by Chinese Seen as Sign of 'Thaw' With Tibetan Exiles Envoys' Visit Could Restart Dialogue
John Pomfret Washington Post Foreign Service Thursday, September 12, 2002; Page A12

BEIJING, Sept. 11 -- In January, an unusual conference on Tibet took place at Harvard University. Participants were asked not to speak with the press because a Chinese Communist Party official responsible for Tibet would take part.

At the conference, the official, Zhu Xiaoming, heard complaints that Chinese authorities were blocking Tibetans wishing to return to China from India and elsewhere. Almost immediately after Zhu got back to Beijing, China began allowing more Tibetan exiles to travel to China.

"It seemed something was changing in China's thinking," said Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan specialist at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London who attended the conference. "Perhaps something like a thaw."

Now, Shakya and other observers of Tibet are wondering again. China this week invited two senior representatives of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, to visit Beijing and Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, special envoy of the Dalai Lama in the United States, and Kelsang Gyaltsen, his envoy in Europe, arrived here Monday with two assistants. The trip marks the first time senior representatives of the Tibetan leader have publicly traveled to China since 1984, when Gyari also visited Beijing and Lhasa.

Their visit has sparked hope of a breakthrough or at least a renewed dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after Chinese troops crushed a Tibetan rebellion. However, unlike in 1984, when hopes were also high for improved ties between China and the Dalai Lama, China is much stronger and more influential on the international stage.

Shakya and other observers of Tibet say they believe the Tibetan delegation will face difficult talks.

"The Chinese feel much more confident this time than in 1984 when they were weak and wanted international support," said Shakya, the author of a well-received modern history of Tibet's relations with China, "The Dragon in the Land of Snows." "Any negotiations will be much harder for the Tibetans than the Chinese."

China's motivations are difficult to read. One theory is that President Jiang Zemin wishes to smooth the way for talks with President Bush during his visit in October to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex. Tibet, said Susan Shirk, a former State Department official, has been a constant irritant in U.S.-China relations.

China's move comes as Beijing attempts to project a kinder, gentler image of its rule in Tibet. Over the past few months, the government has released six political prisoners before they had served their full sentences, including one Tibetan, Tanak Jigme Sangpo, who had spent decades behind bars. Groups of Western journalists have been taken to the region -- more than at any time in recent memory.

The Chinese have also begun to think about Tibet in different ways.

Since all official contacts ceased in 1993, Beijing's policy has been to ignore the government in exile and wait for the Dalai Lama, 67, to die. But two years ago, Wang Lixiong, an influential independent writer, circulated a pamphlet in Beijing titled "The Dalai Lama is the key to the future," in which he argued that a fragmented Tibetan exile movement without a leader would make it more difficult for Beijing to close a deal on Tibet. Wang argued that now was the time to work toward a solution. Some government officials agreed.

More broadly within Chinese society, things Tibetan, once looked down upon as primitive, are now considered exotic. Today the mountainous region has the same cachet among China's urban young that it has in the West -- mysterious and hip.

In July, China also allowed in Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's brother, a frequent visitor to Beijing over the years who has acted as an unofficial conduit between the two sides since 1993.

And in October 2000, Beijing replaced Tibet's party secretary, Chen Kuiyuan, widely despised in Tibet for his tough policies to suppress culture there, with Guo Jinlong, who has stressed economic development more than ideological issues.

Shakya and others said that allowing the Dalai Lama's envoys to visit China was another sign of a more flexible stance by Beijing. Gyari and Gyaltsen had spearheaded the Dalai Lama's successful policy of internationalizing the Tibetan issue and, because of their close contacts in the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament and other corridors of Western power, they have incurred China's wrath.

While a spokesman for the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, the Indian city that the Tibetan government-in-exile has called home since 1959, termed the trip "official," China played down its significance, calling it "private."

"There were some Tibetan expatriates allowed to come back to China in a private capacity," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told reporters on Tuesday, declining to give their names. They will mainly visit relatives in Tibet, but will also "have a chance to meet with people at all levels and exchange views with them," he said.

Kong said the Dalai Lama must cease trying to "split" China, recognize Tibet and Taiwan as part of China and acknowledge Beijing as the sole legitimate government representing all of China before any serious dialogue can begin.

Hopes for improved ties have been raised before. In June 1998, Jiang, in a news conference with President Bill Clinton, who was on a visit to China, appeared to indicate that he was willing to engage in renewed dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

Shakya predicted that in the current talks with the Dalai Lama's delegation, Chinese officials will be firm on one point that is "completely taboo" for the exile community: Beijing's demand that the Dalai Lama relinquish any claim over Tibetan regions belonging to other provinces, such as Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai or Xinjiang.

This could be a deal-breaker because it is believed that more than half of Tibetan exiles come from regions outside the boundaries of the current Tibetan Autonomous Region.

"I am worried that the Chinese will offer a 'take it or leave it' proposal," Shakya said. "They are in a strong position."

China has also said it will not fundamentally change the nature of its rule in Tibet and is willing only to negotiate a deal over the role the Dalai Lama will be allowed to play. The Dalai Lama, however, wants Tibet to be granted real autonomy within a Chinese federation.