BEIJING – Two high-profile envoys of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, have arrived in China amidst hopes that their visit could lead to a substantive dialogue with the Chinese government after tentative behind-the-scenes contacts in recent months.
The Dalai Lama is said to seek assurances from Beijing that it would not usurp his authority in appointing religious figures and interpreting religious texts. At 68, and in exile for 45 years, the Tibetan leader also wants China to allow him to return to his homeland.
The visit may lay the foundation for overcoming an impasse in the dialogue between China and Tibet, which broke off 10 years ago without negotiating a settlement to a question that continues to blacken Beijing’s international image. Contacts between the Tibetans and the Chinese were reestablished in September 2002 and a second visit by the Tibetan delegation took place in May last year.
China has confirmed that supporters of the Dalai Lama were visiting the country and said it hoped they would take a positive message back to the Tibetan spiritual leader.
"We have always welcomed overseas Tibetan compatriots to come to China, including to visit the Tibet region, to have a look there and to meet their friends and relatives," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a news briefing on Thursday.
Many see the visit of these Tibetan envoys as a way for China to enter into meaningful dialogue with the exile Tibetan leadership that seeks to chalk out an amicable solution to the Tibet issue
"The potential of this third visit is significant," said Mary Beth Markey, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington. "Those who follow the process closely will be looking for indications that the Chinese government is ready to change its hard-line approach and address serious substantive issues through dialogue."
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese communist rule over the Himalayan region. He has since lived in exile in Dharamsala, India. A Nobel Peace prize-winner and the world’s most famous advocate of non-violence, the Dalai Lama is still worshipped inside and outside of Tibet as a "Living God."
In the past 20 years however, his demands have shrunk from seeking full independence for Tibet to a mere plea for tolerance and autonomy.
"There are two things the Dalai Lama wants to talk with China during this mission that the right of edit and transfer of religious texts lies with him and that he is allowed to go back to his residence in Potala," a Beijing-based diplomat with close connections to the government in Dharamsala told IPS.
In the past China had insisted that the Dalai Lama would have to live in Beijing if he ever returned to stay. China also disputes the Dalai Lama’s right to choose Tibetan religious leaders. The two sides have bickered bitterly over the recognition of the Panchen Lama the second most revered Tibetan figure.
After the 10th Panchen Lama died almost 14 years ago, the Chinese rejected the Dalai Lama’s choice of his successor and seized the boy and his family. Instead, Beijing appointed its own candidate who will one day probably be called upon to lead the Tibetans during the period until a new Dalai Lama is recognized and reaches adulthood.
After the Panchen Lama confrontation, talks between Tibetans and Chinese broke off but had quietly revived in the last 18 months amid speculation that China might be willing to take a new path in its policy toward the Dalai Lama.
Incumbent party chief Hu Jintao who oversaw a harsh crackdown in Tibet in 1989 by imposing martial law, is seen as keen to push the China-Tibetan dialogue forward and learn from earlier mistakes.
Hopes have risen too that as Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games, China might be more willing to re-start a genuine dialogue with the Tibetan exiled leaders.
The situation in Tibet these days hardly equals challenges China faces in hot local spots like Hong Kong with its growing clamor for democracy and Taiwan with its incremental push for independence.
Quite opposite with China’s rise as a global power in recent years, the Tibetan fight for independence has been losing supporters in the Western world, all too keen on keeping businesses with China booming.
Focused on its global war against terrorism, the Bush administration has given the future of Tibet a lower priority in talks with China than the previous Clinton administration. European leaders once vociferous in demanding Tibetan rights, have chosen, too, to stay on side with Beijing refusing to meet the Dalai Lama or according him only low levels of reception.
But while the Tibetan issue has gradually faded from prominence internationally, it remains an explosive one for Beijing. Every new generation of communist Chinese leaders has tried to negotiate a settlement of the question that is unlikely to go away, at least while the Dalai Lama lives.
The Communist party’s 198-member Central Committee began Thursday a four-day closed-door gathering aimed at coining more effective party policies on national reunification and issues that may challenge China’s ascent as a major global power in the 21st century.
For months now, China watchers and party members have been speculating about undercurrent tensions between President Hu Jintao and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who remains chief of the armed forces.
President Hu, now 62, and the elderly Jiang are said to diverge on issues ranging from economic growth to foreign policy. Both however, are believed to share a common uncompromising line on issues of China’s sovereignty and national security.
In May, Beijing issued a strongly worded White Paper on Tibet which sent conflicting signals about the Chinese leadership’s readiness to engage in talks beyond the confidence-building meetings of the previous two visits.
"The destiny and future of Tibet can no longer be decided by the Dalai Lama and his cliques. Rather, it can only be decided by the whole Chinese nation, including the Tibetan people," said the 30-page paper released by the Information Office of the State Council. "This is an objective political fact in Tibet that can not be denied or shaken."
On the day of Tibetan delegation’s departure from India, China put a show of force by staging anti-terror exercises in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
Citing a rise in global terrorism since Sept. 11, the local garrison of the People’s Liberation Army, police and paramilitary forces practiced countering hijackings and explosions, biochemical weapons and seizure of terrorists.
International human rights groups have expressed concern that China is using the global war on terrorism as an excuse to crack down on Tibet.