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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

New China-Tibet talks show slight policy shift

January 31, 2010

By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
Associated Press
January 29, 2010

New talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys are
highlighting subtle shifts in China's approach to
its restive, riot-scarred western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

The meetings with representatives of the exiled
spiritual leader, scheduled to start Saturday in
Beijing, signal a renewed willingness to
re-engage with Tibet's self-declared
government-in-exile after a 15-month freeze in direct contact.

They follow a high-level Communist Party
conference on Tibet that emphasized raising rural
livelihoods, an apparent acknowledgment that
decades of investment in industry and
infrastructure have failed to endear the region's
herders and farmers to Chinese rule.

A similar gathering on Xinjiang policy is planned
for later this year, with the Communist Party's
chief for law and order saying new programs are
needed to react to changes in the predominantly Muslim region.

Riots that broke out in Tibet in 2008 marked the
region's worst ethnic violence in decades,
prompting China to seal it off and pour in
troops. Bloodier violence in Xinjiang last summer
left almost 200 people dead. A security clampdown
that included cutting access to the Internet,
text messaging and international calls, remains largely in place.

In the wake of the unrest, China dispatched
government scholars and bureaucrats to study
conditions on the ground and draft
recommendations. Last week's Tibet conference,
attended by President Hu Jintao and other top
officials, afforded the opportunity to air the
results and introduce subtle shifts in priorities.

While more rhetorical and procedural than
substantive, the moves have some observers of
Chinese politics seeing at least the possibility
of more nuanced thinking creeping in.

"We do have these episodes of hope from time to
time," said Michael C. Davis, an expert on Tibet
at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The region has been a source of controversy for
decades, since Beijing sent troops to occupy
Tibet following the 1949 communist revolution. It
insists the region has been part of Chinese
territory for centuries, a claim disputed by many Tibetans.

A failed uprising in 1959 led the Dalai Lama to flee into exile in India.

Beijing has accused him of trying to split the
country. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly denied the
accusations and says he seeks only a high level of autonomy for Tibet.

The Tibet conference avoided the issue of
autonomy, but called for raising rural incomes in
the region to the level of the rest of China by
the end of the decade, while boosting funding for
ethnic Tibetan areas in neighboring provinces
that also witnessed anti-government protests in 2008.

The strategies reflect China's insistence that
problems out west are economic in origin rather
than religious or ethnically based, but also that
funding needs to be redirected toward improving
livelihoods and not simply infrastructure.

China has spent 140 billion yuan ($20 billion) on
development in Tibet since 2001, but critics
complain much of the money has gone to projects
that benefit Chinese companies and migrants,
while fueling resentment of Beijing's rule among poor Tibetans.

Documents issued at the conference were
relatively free of the usual invective against
the Dalai Lama and other "splittists," creating a
less politically charged atmosphere.

Analysts have also pointed to comments by one
Chinese delegate to the Tibet talks, Zhu Weiqun,
characterizing the Dalai Lama's claims not to be
seeking independence as "good, though not enough."

Though Zhu said further clarification was needed
from the Dalai Lama, his remarks were a departure
from Beijing's usual blanket dismissals of the
75-year-old Buddhist leader's calls for
substantial autonomy under Chinese rule.

The latest talks are the ninth round in a process
that began in 2002. Neither side has revealed
details about the agenda and expectations for progress are low.

Beijing insists that talks only address the
return of the Dalai Lama, rejecting proposals
raised by the exiles at previous talks for greater autonomy.

"I cannot see what the recent round of
negotiation can achieve in concrete terms," said
Dibyesh Anand, professor of international
relations at London's Westminster University.

Speculation over Tibet policy has also raised
questions about Beijing's approach to Xinjiang,
which is also led by a hardline Chinese Communist
Party leader who pledges often and publicly to crush all dissent.

The goal of that conference, the date of which
has not been announced, is to "make a plan to
support the development of Xinjiang and promote
the long-term stability and prosperity," according to state broadcaster CCTV.

While offering no prospect of political dialogue,
the Xinjiang meeting could introduce similar
measures to improve economic opportunities for
the native population, the Uighur ethnic group,
whose incomes lag far behind the Han Chinese majority.

Despite the moves, analysts who study Tibet and
Xinjiang are skeptical of any major changes in Chinese policy.

China says its crackdown on Uighur separatists is
part of the global campaign against terrorism.
Such claims are bolstered by occasional attacks
in the region and recent reports that 13 Chinese
Uighurs were among those killed in a U.S. missile strike in Afghanistan.

On Tibet, meanwhile, Beijing finds itself under
little pressure to change its approach or make
concessions over Tibet. Still, Beijing may see
engagement with the Dalai Lama's envoys as useful
for allaying international criticism.

"As in the past, such talks assuage certain
international concern, but don't derail China's
actual policies in Tibet, said China scholar
Elliot Sperling at Indiana University.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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