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Tibet talks resume, but with few hopes for breakthrough

By Jim Yardley, International Herald Tribune, July 1, 2008

BEIJING, China -- Chinese officials and senior envoys of the Dalai Lama opened their latest round of negotiations over Tibet on Tuesday amid international pressure for a breakthrough less than six weeks before Beijing plays host to the Olympic Games.

The discussions, held at an undisclosed location in Beijing, are the second round of formal talks since March, when anti-Chinese protests erupted in Lhasa and spread to Tibetan regions of western China. The precise agenda is unknown, but the two sides have sharp differences over the political status of Tibet and the possible return of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

Analysts agree that a major breakthrough is unlikely and say negotiators are probably talking about far narrower issues, including a possible road map for continued and more substantive discussions in the future. But Beijing, which once seemed indifferent to the process, is now under international pressure to show progress before the Olympics, which open on Aug. 8.

On Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Liu Jianchao, declined to comment about the negotiations. But a day earlier, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said he would decide whether to attend the Olympic opening ceremony after assessing the merits of the talks. Sarkozy has been an outspoken critic of China's crackdown against the Tibetan protesters, though he has moderated his comments in recent weeks.

"I expect much from them," Sarkozy said of the talks during a television interview in France. "I am in contact with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, and the Dalai Lama, and I believe that the talks are progressing well."
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Last Sunday, the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, also raised the Tibet situation during a meeting in Beijing with the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi. "The United States continues to be concerned about the situation in Tibet, and we want to encourage the dialogue that has begun there," Rice said during a short news briefing Sunday.

China has blamed the Dalai Lama for the violence and demonstrations in March, accusing him and his followers of orchestrating the uprising in order to destabilize and "split" China before the Olympics. The Dalai Lama has denied the accusations and called on Tibetans to renounce violence. He also has opposed boycotting the Olympics and said he would attend the opening ceremony, if invited.

In a statement released by the Dalai Lama's office, he said his envoys this week would "make every effort to bring about tangible progress to alleviate the difficult situation for Tibetans in their homeland."

The current talks are a continuation of a process that began in 2002 but then broke down last summer. Faced with growing international criticism over its handling of the Tibetan demonstrations, China agreed in April to restart the process, and the two sides met in the Chinese city of Shenzhen. Another meeting was postponed because of the earthquake May 12 in Sichuan Province.

Today, foreign journalists are still forbidden from visiting many Tibetan regions of western China. Pro-Tibet advocacy groups have reported continuing violent confrontations between Tibetans and security officers. The authorities also have ordered "patriotic education" campaigns inside Tibetan monasteries to discipline Buddhist monks. Last month, the Communist Party boss of the Tibet Autonomous Region elicited international criticism when he used a ceremony with the Olympic torch in Lhasa to criticize the Dalai Lama.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media have continued to attack the Dalai Lama and question his motives. Global Weekly, a state-owned international affairs magazine, had a cover story this week titled, "Open Your Eyes to the Dalai Lama Clique's Next Plot."

But analysts also point to recent signs of possible warming. On June 4, the Dalai Lama led a prayer vigil on behalf of the victims of the Sichuan earthquake that was attended by officials in the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama also has sought to tamp down more confrontational factions in the exile Tibetan community. China, meanwhile, has reopened Tibet to foreign tourists and says foreign journalists, if approved, can also visit. Chinese state media also reported that the authorities had released more than 1,000 Tibetans detained after the demonstrations.

"Over the past two months, both sides have done a lot of work to try to create a positive ambience," said Laurence Brahm, a businessman in Beijing who has served as an informal liaison between the two sides.

Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University, said China had made almost no concessions since the diplomatic process began in 2002 but that any intransigence now would probably provoke renewed international criticism before the Olympics. He said that China's refusal to budge in the past may actually work to its advantage, since even a modest gesture could be regarded as progress.

"The Chinese have an opportunity even by doing something really quite small to give the impression that they have changed," Barnett said. He said one possibility would be if the government agreed to study possible limitations on migration of Han Chinese into the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Barnett also noted that many ordinary Tibetans inside China were watching closely and waiting to see whether any progress was made. "They want to see some improvements on the ground," he said.

Perhaps the boldest stroke would be if China agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama himself, or extended him an offer to attend the Olympics. Such a gesture would probably have to come from Hu himself, given the entrenched interest groups inside China who are invested in maintaining the status quo, Barnett said.

And, of course, the possibility remains that the talks will produce little, except perhaps more future talks. Lian Xiangmin, head of research at China's leading academic center on Tibet, said the talks this week were just a "normal meeting" and not freighted with any special importance.

"We've been doing this for many years," Lian said. "I don't see any difference between this one and previous ones. This meeting has no connection to the Olympics. Making progress on the Tibet issue is up to the Dalai Lama. The central government has expressed its position since 1979."

Huang Yuanxi contributed research.


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