- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

BEIJING He touched down on American soil and entered exile at age 74, an ailing Tibetan schoolteacher who ran afoul of the Chinese government long ago for expressing his views. But Tanak Jigme Sangpo's trip to freedom, some say, had little to do with him or with Tibet.

As China's longest-held political prisoner spent his first days in the United States last month, activists said Mr. Jigme Sangpo's departure the sixth early release of a Tibetan political prisoner since January suggests a changing government's eagerness to engage the United States and the world.

"I'm wondering if the new leadership wants to have this legacy of very, very long-held political prisoners. I think they may be looking at other ways of showing their face to the world," said Kate Saunders of the London-based Tibet Information Network.

China has released prisoners in the past, often to coincide with visits of U.S. leaders, and occasionally some are taken into custody again. But the mounting tally of releases and of prisoners or detainees allowed to leave China in recent years is unusual.

By their nature, political prisoners usually represent more than the crimes for which they are convicted. They are often mirrors of the government that has jailed them and of its leaders' goals. A snapshot of China, circa July 2002, shows a government poised for change.

The National Party Congress, which convenes in September, is expected to name a new general secretary to replace the aging Jiang Zemin. The top candidate, Hu Jintao, a former party secretary in Tibet, also is considered a shoo-in for the presidency when Mr. Jiang retires from that post next year.

As a new generation of leaders rises, China also is grappling with vast economic upheaval, both positive and negative, that its engagement with the world is bringing. Newfound membership in the World Trade Organization has only intensified this.

On such rapidly shifting terrain especially since September 11, which caused most nations to take stock of their alliances China has sought to align itself with the U.S.-led global fight against terrorism. On July 4, in an editorial that alternately criticized and praised, the party newspaper People's Daily called America "a brave land" and cited the September 11 attacks.

John Kamm, whose San Francisco-based Duihua Foundation led the efforts to free Mr. Jigme Sangpo, thinks that all played a part in Mr. Jigme Sangpo's release and in the leadership's increasing willingness to discuss such issues. It's appropriate: Duihua means "dialogue" in Chinese.

"I'm not at all convinced that the policy toward Tibet is changing. But I think they want to further relations with the United States and see this as a way of doing it," Mr. Kamm said. "They look at the options available to them for that purpose, and they land on the release of long-serving Tibetan prisoners."

It didn't hurt that Mr. Jigme Sangpo was cited by U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt during a Jan. 21 speech in Hong Kong. "Our goal is not that China should be just like Dorothy's Kansas," Mr. Randt said, "but we do insist that China abide by certain international norms."

Calls to China's Foreign Ministry about the release went unanswered.

Tibet captured the West's imagination long ago and has been a popular issue among American activists in recent years far more than other regions in China where rights abuses are said to occur. For example, few Americans know of Xinjiang, a northwestern region where Beijing is trying to quell a low-level rebellion among ethnic Uighurs.

The Tibet Information Network said Mr. Jigme Sangpo's medical parole made him the sixth Tibetan prisoner released early since January, including four "singing nuns," women punished for recording pro-independence songs in prison. The most recent, Ngawang Choezom, was freed June 21.

Mr. Jigme Sangpo, a primary-school teacher, has been in and out of prison mostly in since 1965. In 1983, he was sentenced to 15 years for "counterrevolutionary incitement and propaganda" campaigning against Chinese rule in Tibet, Mr. Kamm said.

His sentence was extended twice and would have expired Sept. 3, 2011. Prison authorities exempted him from physical labor several years ago, Mr. Kamm said.

He had been released from Lhasa's Drapchi prison in April but was kept under house arrest at his niece's home.

Now Mr. Jigme Sangpo is free, which also frees China to say what it often does in such cases that he was released for humanitarian reasons. That can only bolster the image that Beijing is so eager to build.

"I think China is a little more concerned about the United States' influence than any other government's," Miss Saunders said. "And the issue of Tibet is so well-known in the States. It is a way they can make a very strong PR point to the outside world."

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