- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

LHASA, Tibet China has undertaken a charm offensive to win over critics of its policies in Tibet, a perennially thorny issue in its relations with the United States and other Western governments.

In recent months, China has released political prisoners and invited groups of journalists to tour Tibet. Beijing also has welcomed representatives of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader and statesman living in exile, to visit their homeland for the first time in 22 years.

The campaign comes as Chinese President Jiang Zemin prepares to visit the United States Oct. 24 for talks with President Bush at his ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Beijing is feeling more confident than ever about its rule over the troubled Himalayan region. Tibet has seen eight straight years of double-digit economic growth, thanks to billions of dollars of investment and subsidies from Beijing. There have been no major acts of dissent since 1999.

"Now is the best time in Tibetan history in terms of stability and economic development," said Tibet Gov. Legqog, who uses only one name, a common practice for many Tibetans. "The world now is watching us."

He said the government is placing new emphasis on using the international media to convey its message. Reporters are usually refused entry to Tibet. But in the past few months, Beijing-based journalists were invited to visit, following several groups of European legislators and diplomats.

"They clearly must feel more comfortable that they have the situation under control," said John Kamm, director of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, who has been involved in negotiating with China for prisoner releases for more than eight years.

Mr. Kamm believes the early releases of seven political prisoners in Tibet this past year are clearly linked to China's "strategic decision" to improve relations with Washington.

"It is releasing Tibetan prisoners with the knowledge such moves would be welcome at high levels in Washington," Mr. Kamm said. "In all of the releases I've been involved with, the Chinese side has been very mindful of the various leaders in the [Bush] administration and Congress who have taken an interest in the cases."

China's notion of a more stable Tibet is reflected at the province's main prison, known as Drapchi, which holds 900 inmates, about 100 of them political prisoners.

Lu Bo, the prison director, said the number of new political prisoners has been steadily declining. A decade ago, a dozen or more new political prisoners entered Drapchi each year. By the late 1990s, that number was cut in half. Last year saw only two new political prisoners and none has come so far this year.

Asked the reason for the downward trend, he replied: "Because the society is stable and the economy is developing."

Yet stability has not meant freedoms. China still exercises strict control over the Buddhist monasteries, requiring weekly "patriotic education" classes and limiting the number of new monks and nuns. Sixty percent of the political prisoners in Drapchi are monks and nuns, a figure highly disproportional to their share of the general population.

There are other possible motives for China's recent gestures on Tibet.

For one, Mr. Jiang may be hoping to avoid a repeat of past visits to the United States and Europe when noisy pro-Tibet demonstrators dogged his appearances.

"His meetings and public engagements were disrupted, his speeches drowned by outside noise," said Tsering Shakya, a fellow in Tibetan studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "Jiang lost his cool and even shouted at his host in Switzerland. He doesn't want to have this kind of repeated protest when he visits America."

China may also be influenced by improved relations between the United States and India in the wake of last year's September 11 attacks, Mr. Shakya said. Closer ties between the two worry China since it views India, the home base for the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, as a political and economic rival.

Communist troops invaded Tibet, an impoverished and sparsely populated province of 2.6 million, in 1950-51, just a year after the Communist Party took control of China. As tensions mounted with Chinese troops, the Dalai Lama, who had ruled Tibet, fled to India in 1959 with 80,000 of his followers.

The Dalai Lama sent three fact-finding missions to Tibet in 1979 and 1980 and other emissaries have met with Chinese officials intermittently since. But China has refused any official contact since 1993.

Now, with the visit of two high-level emissaries of the Dalai Lama, special envoy Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari and envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen, some analysts see renewed hope of an eventual dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. They arrived in Beijing Sept. 9 and flew to Lhasa a few days later, where they met Mr. Legqog. For two weeks they traveled in Tibet, seeing relatives and visiting monasteries.

Mr. Gyari, who is based in Washington and had not been to Tibet since 1959, is regarded as one of the most influential lobbyists on the Tibet issue. Critics charge Beijing with political repression in Tibet and say a massive influx of Chinese workers, who nearly outnumber Tibetans in a few cities, threatens Tibet's unique culture.

Mr. Legqog said he met the visiting Tibetans as a special courtesy, but denied knowing they were envoys of the Dalai Lama. China's stance on the Dalai Lama remains unchanged. Although the Nobel laureate has abandoned independence in favor of a more meaningful autonomy within China, Mr. Legqog called him dishonest and insincere. He said that if the Dalai Lama recognizes Tibet and Taiwan as inalienable parts of China, "then anything can be discussed."

Tao Changsong, a researcher at the government-sponsored Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences who has been in Lhasa since 1960, said he doubted the envoys' visit would lead to any breakthroughs, given the intransigence on both sides.

"The gap between the two sides is too wide," he said. "There won't be any dialogue. It's impossible."

Although Beijing officially labeled the visits "private," the trip was strictly controlled. No official except Mr. Legqog admitted even knowing of their arrival and no announcement was made in the domestic media. Ordinary Tibetans in Lhasa had no idea of the envoys' presence.

A source at the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred site in Tibet, said the two envoys and their assistants arrived at the temple early one morning with several officials. Only two or three older monks were allowed to greet them. All of the other 95 monks were kept confined to their rooms.

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