- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

TSETHANG, Tibet — Tibetans are hoping that Chinese President Hu Jintao may relax Beijing’s hard-line policy on Tibet after the government began a media campaign last week to promote its position on the region.

As Beijing-based foreign correspondents arrived in Tibet for a rare conducted tour, Tibetan officials said recent visits by envoys of the Dalai Lama to China have offered hopeful signs that Mr. Hu, who used to be China’s top official in Tibet, would usher in more favorable policies.

“Our hope is that Hu Jintao will fashion a policy more sensitive to the reasonable aspirations of the Tibetan people,” Thubten Samphel, spokesman for the exiled Tibetan government, said in Dharmsala, India, where the Dalai Lama is based.

“It is critical for the Chinese government to understand the majority views of the Tibetan people.”

Western journalists are prohibited from independently traveling in the region China has occupied since 1951, but Beijing periodically allows strictly controlled group access to officials and carefully selected Tibetans when it wants to get its side of the story out.

Forty-four correspondents arrived Aug. 21 in Tsethang, a historic town in the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley where the earliest Tibetan kings reigned some 1,300 years ago.

Talks that began last year under former President Jiang Zemin between Chinese officials and Lodi Gyari, an envoy of the Dalai Lama, took on momentum when Mr. Gyari was welcomed again by China after Mr. Hu took office in March.

“There is now an urgent need for the two sides to raise the level of this contact and start substantive dialogue on the political status of Tibet,” said Mr. Samphel.

At the crux is whether the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, will be allowed to return to Tibet where he continues to be revered, and whether China will accept his “middle way” of seeking greater autonomy for the region under overall Chinese rule and transforming Tibet into a “zone of peace.”

A Chinese official here acknowledged dialogue channels are open but insisted that the Dalai Lama is a “splittist.”

“The Dalai Lama is a splittist, that is for sure. The channels of dialogue are now open, but that hasn’t changed the way we view him,” the Lhasa-based official said, adding that any decision on his status would “come from the top.”

Although Mr. Hu instituted martial law in Lhasa — brutally quelling widespread anti-Chinese and pro-independence demonstrations — when he was Tibet’s highest political leader in 1989, Tibetans still hope they can work with him.

China maintains it “peacefully liberated” Tibet in 1951. It has ruled the Himalayan region with an iron fist since.

In 1959, Beijing quelled a bloody uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile and during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, it smashed Tibet’s feudal tradition of serfdom.

After recognizing the harm done to Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, Beijing experimented with more lenient policies in the 1980s, but after the 1989 democracy protests, it returned to oppression.

“Now the Chinese policy on Tibet is becoming more sophisticated,” Mr. Samphel said.

The progress, however, was set back last week when a group of prominent exiled Tibetans was denied permission to visit China.

The trip was first proposed a year ago and was intended to promote understanding, Radio Free Asia reported. China had been widely expected to approve the visit.

Sources told RFA’s Tibetan service that Beijing balked on the grounds that some of the delegates had engaged in “splittist” activities.

The delegation included several former Tibetan exile government ministers; the former head of the Tibet Fund in New York, Rinchen Dharlo; the former head of the Office of Tibet in Tokyo, Pema Gyalpo; and officials from Nepal, Australia and India.

Sustained international pressure has been widely credited with pushing Beijing toward a more restrained policy, while the Dalai Lama’s repeated acknowledgment of Chinese rule in Tibet is also considered to have helped.

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