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New China-Tibet Talks Prompt Speculation on Shift

January 30, 2010

The Associated Press (AP)
January 29, 2010

BEIJING -- Envoys of exiled Tibetan Buddhist
leader the Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing Friday
for weekend talks amid subtle shifts in China's
approach to its restive, riot-scarred western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

As with past rounds of talks, the discussions
with officials from the Dalai Lama's
self-proclaimed India-based government-in-exile
are taking place under a cone of secrecy.

Little is known other than that envoys Lodi Gyari
and Kelsang Gyaltsen were due to meet with
Communist Party officials on Saturday and Sunday.

The meetings are taking place just over a week
after a major conference on Tibet policy that
yielded slight changes to China's policy toward
the Himalayan region that aim to boost its
economy in hopes of reducing the chances of further ethnic unrest.

At the meeting, President Hu Jintao announced
ambitious targets for raising the incomes of
herders and farmers to the national average by
2020. They currently lag at around a quarter of that level.

Tibet saw the worst anti-government violence in
decades in the spring of 2008, and remains under a heavy security.

Significantly, the meeting also laid out a
blueprint to boost funding for ethnic Tibetan
regions in adjoining provinces rocked by the aftershocks of the protests.

Those moves appeared to acknowledge that more
needs to be done to establish lasting stability
in the Himalayan region, despite Beijing pouring
140 billion yuan ($20 billion) into development projects in Tibet since 2001.

Critics complain much of that money went to
projects such as the railway to Tibet's capital
Lhasa that benefit Chinese companies and
migrants, neglecting the needs of poor Tibetans
and fueling resentment of Beijing's rule.

Observers have also highlighted comments last
month by Chinese negotiator Zhu Weiqun
characterizing the Dalai Lama's claims not to be
seeking independence for Tibet as ''good though not enough.''

While Zhu said further clarification was needed,
his remarks marked a slight departure from
Beijing's usual curt dismissals of the
75-year-old Buddhist leader's calls for
substantial autonomy under Chinese rule.

By and large, however, experts remain skeptical
about the prospects for substantial change in
Beijing's position or major progress at this
weekend's talks, the ninth round in a process
that began in 2002 and has yet to produce substantive results.

Beijing refuses to discuss the status of
China-ruled Tibet and insists that talks only
address the return of the Dalai Lama, who fled to exile in India in 1959.

China has apparently rejected proposals raised at
previous talks for greater Tibetan autonomy
within the framework of the Chinese constitution.

Nor has China shown any sign of easing its strict
controls over Tibetan political expression and
Buddhist worship. Beijing maintains that strife
in the Himalayan region is economic in origin
rather than based on religious or ethnic differences.

China is under little pressure to change its
approach or make concessions, while the recent
installation of a former army officer as Tibet's
new governor signals a hardening of its rule in
the territory, said Michael C. Davis, an expert
on Tibet at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"I just find the evidence very thin that anything
is really changing," Davis said.

The speculation over Tibet policy also has raised
questions about Beijing's approach to Xinjiang,
the traditionally Muslim far-western region where
ethnic rioting last summer last year left almost 200 people dead.

The party's governing Politburo plans to stage a
conference later this year on policy toward the
region similar to this month's meeting on Tibet,
with the goal of formulating a plan to ''support
the development of Xinjiang and promote the
long-term stability and prosperity of Xinjiang,''
according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang remains under a suffocating
security presence. Its Internet, telephone and
text messaging services are slowly being restored
after being cut after the riots.
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