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Officials defend Tibet policy, tout new talks

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

A delegation of top Chinese officials and scholars on Tibet on Thursday defended Beijing's handling of anti-government riots earlier this year and denied charges by followers of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader, that talks to end the crisis have broken down.

Global protests over the March violence, including multiple disruptions of the Olympic torch relay in Europe and the United States, have proven a public relations headache for China's leaders as they prepare for the showcase summer Olympic Games next month in Beijing. China put the death toll from the clashes at 21, but Tibetan activists say the real number is nearly ten times higher.

In a briefing organized by the Chinese Embassy, Tondrub Wangben, vice minister of China's State Ethnic Affairs Committee, said he found "quite limited understanding" about the real situation in Tibet following talks this week with State Department officials and lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill.

"We felt there is a lack of understanding about Tibet and Tibetan affairs in the United States, based on false information and concepts that are not accurate," the minister said, speaking through a translator.

China accuses the Dalai Lama and his followers of seeking independence for the remote Himalayan region. Supporters of the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since 1959, say they seek only autonomy and the preservation of Tibet's unique culture in the face of efforts by Beijing to assert central control.

Kelsang Gyaltsen, an envoy for the Dalai Lama, told the European Parliament on Tuesday that talks with the government over the future of Tibet earlier this month had made no progress. Off-and-on talks on a political settlement have been held since 2002, including at least one meeting since the March riots.

"We do not see any useful purpose in continuing the dialogue since there is obviously a lack of political will from the Chinese leadership to seriously address the issue of Tibet," he said.

Mr. Wangben denied the talks had broken down, and noted a new set of negotiations has already been scheduled, to be held before the end of the year.

But he also made clear that the Dalai Lama's supporters must accept a series of preconditions before any serious autonomy talks can begin, including rejecting independence for Tibet and opposing any efforts to disrupt the Olympic Games.

Given the violence of last March and the clashes over the torch relay, "many people in China do not see why we even need to have a dialogue" with the Dalai Lama, Mr. Wangben said.

"But as long as the Dalai Lama side gives up on impossible requests and achievements, there can be progress" in the dialogue, he said.

Analysts say the recent Tibetan violence reflected a complex combination of factors, from demands for more political and religious freedom to fears by ethnic Tibetans that Chinese migration and rapid economic development were undermining traditional ways of life and work.

But Luorong Zhandu, a specialist on Tibet's economy at the state-sponsored Chinese Tibetology Research Center, said at the embassy briefing that he believed the March violence had been "premeditated," masterminded by Buddhist monks loyal to the Dalai Lama.

"Lhasa is a clean city, but the rioters had prepared stocks of stones to throw," he said. "It was very clear what the target was - shops in the city opened by Muslims and then shops owned by Han Chinese."

Mr. Wangben was noncommittal when asked whether Beijing would allow peaceful demonstrations and political protests during the Olympics, which open officially Aug. 8.

He said China was a "rule-of-law country" and that all public demonstrations must get official approval. "If there is no such approval, there cannot be demonstrations."