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CHINA: Talks With Dalai Lama's Envoys Leading Nowhere

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, May 7 2008 (IPS) - With Tibetan unrest smouldering and international pressure building up on Beijing to negotiate with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, Chinese officials have met with his envoys and pledged more talks in the future.

But, the talks hold out little chance for a breakthrough on the Tibetan problem that has been a blot on China’s international image for more than 50 years.

Even as representatives from both sides were meeting in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on the weekend, state propaganda kept up a barrage of attacks on the Dalai Lama and his followers, accusing them of associating with terrorists in seeking to split Tibet from China.

‘The China Daily,’ the English-language government mouthpiece, ran an article on Monday portraying the Tibet Youth Congress as an "advocate of terrorism", and an "armed spearhead" of the 14th Dalai Lama group. The paper quoted Tibetologist Liu Hongji as saying that the pro-independence group had sought support from international terrorist organisations such as al-Qaida and East Turkestan groups.

An editorial in the Communist party’s flagship, the ‘People’s Daily,’ meanwhile, criticised the Dalai Lama for trying to camouflage his real goal of Tibetan independence. "The Dalai clique has always been proficient in playing with words," the editorial said. "They put forward different kinds of concepts to dazzle people but there is only one key word behind them – Tibetan independence".

While agreeing to new talks without conceding anything to the Dalai Lama’s envoys, China has continued its media campaign against Tibetan dissident groups, hoping to win a public relations battle begun after peaceful demonstrations in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa turned violent on Mar. 14 and protests spread to other Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces.

"It is impossible to know the real attitude of the Chinese government because the political system is so opaque," says Wang Lixiong, an independent Tibetan scholar, based in Beijing. "For one thing, they are not like the government from Mao Zedong’s period which acted motivated by ideology. These days, Chinese leaders are opportunistic and they would do what suits their interests best."

China has come under intense international pressure for its harsh handling of the anti-China riots in Tibet just months before athletes, politicians and tourists from all over the world descend on Beijing for the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games. Playing an Olympic host for the first time, China has seized the opportunity to bask in the limelight to present the games as its international coming out party.

But a severe crackdown on protesters in Tibetan areas has marred both Beijing’s countdown to the Olympics and the country’s ambitious international torch relay. The Olympic flame has been dogged by anti-China protests along its route from Europe to Australia and Asia, drawing attention to Beijing’s human rights record and harsh minority policies.

Chinese authorities say 22 people, mainly of ethnic Han Chinese origin, died in the mid-March violence, while Tibet supporters abroad claim that more than a hundred Tibetans were killed in the protests and the subsequent crackdown across western China.

Western and Japanese leaders have put pressure on Beijing to reopen dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The prospect of a boycott was raised by French president Nicolas Sarkozy who said he might not attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games unless the dialogue resumed.

Over the weekend two representatives of the Dalai Lama – Lodi Gyari, based in Washington, and Kelsang Gyaltsen, based in Zurich, – met Chinese officials at a closed-door meeting in Shenzhen. The Chinese side was represented by Zhu Weiqun and Sitar, both ministers of the United Front Work Department of the Communist party – the body responsible for managing the affairs of all national minorities.

Envoys of the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama have held six rounds of negotiations between 2002 and 2007 but have failed to breach the vast differences separating the two sides.

The two sides cannot even agree on which Tibet they are talking about. The Dalai Lama believes he represents all seven million Tibetans, while the Chinese mean the 2.8 million that live in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Most Tibetans live in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces as a result of borders drawn by the Chinese communist leaders in the 1950s.

While the Dalai Lama no longer talks of full independence for Tibet, he campaigns for genuine autonomy of his homeland that would include greater respect for religious and cultural identity of all Tibetans living inside China.

Beijing however suspects that the Dalai Lama and his followers harbour secret independence ambitions and has in the past refused to hold talks with the Tibetans until the Dalai Lama gives up a "quest" to split China.

In its first comments on the negotiations, the Chinese government reiterated that the Dalai Lama should stop pushing for independence before any meaningful agreements between the two sides can be made.

"We hope the Dalai Lama will mean his words and really stop separatist activities, stop provoking violent activities disrupting the Beijing Olympics … so as to create conditions for further contact," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a regular press conference on Tuesday.

For its part, the Tibetan government-in-exile said that if the current crackdown in Tibetan areas continues negotiations would be difficult. "We felt that until and unless the current crisis in Tibet improves, it is difficult to start negotiations," Kesang Yangkyi Takla, a minister with the government-in-exile was quoted as saying in Brussels. "We hope that the government in China will consider this and give a concrete reply so that things improve in Tibet".

Meanwhile, clashes in the restive Tibetan areas continue with the state media reporting a gunfight in the Qinghai’s Dari country last week, which has reportedly left a policeman and a Tibetan activist dead. The incident followed several protests in the area in recent weeks by ethnic Tibetans and their confrontations with Chinese security forces, according to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

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