Tibetans in exile and their supporters hope next week's meeting in Texas between the U.S. and Chinese presidents will help lead to a dialogue between the government in Beijing and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader. They say some recent developments are encouraging, but they also say the situation inside Tibet has not improved.
Iraq and counter-terrorism may be at the top of the agenda when President Jiang Zemin meets with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas October 25, but Mr. Bush is also expected to raise human rights concerns and the issue of Tibet.
Mary Beth Markey is the U.S. executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet. "We are very optimistic that the president will raise Tibet with President Jiang. He has done so in the past when they met in Beijing and in Shanghai, even when he had a curtailed agenda because of meetings cut short because of September 11," she said.
The U.S. government recognizes the Tibet autonomous region as part of China. Many Tibetans say the region should be independent. China crushes any movements that advocate Tibetan independence.
The International Campaign for Tibet wants self-determination for the Tibetan people, and Ms. Markey said efforts by the Dalai Lama to begin a dialogue with Beijing are an expression of that self-determination. She said the Tibet issue has gained some momentum, after a delegation from the Dalai Lama's government in exile visited Beijing and Lhasa last month.
"I think it was important for them primarily... to re-establish face to face contact in a way that created a conducive atmosphere for regular dialogue leading to a solution. I think they did that. And I think they feel very positive. And now we are looking optimistically for a follow-on visit and the beginning of genuine dialogue," she said.
A member of the group Students for a Free Tibet, Gyaltsen Sangpo, does not believe China is moving toward a genuine dialogue with the Dalai Lama. At a recent Washington rally, Mr. Sangpo said China may have invited the Tibetan delegation to improve its own image in advance of hosting the 2008 Olympics. He said China's public relations effort does not change the real situation in Tibet.
"People are now suffering in Tibet. As a culture, we are suffering - language, especially the religion. Recently, the monasteries in eastern Tibet, they start to destroy the monasteries, which strongly shows how (the) Tibetan situation is," Mr. Sangpo said.
Another member of Students for a Free Tibet, Hamsa Rajan, said the group supports any negotiations between the Tibetan government in exile and Beijing but is only cautiously optimistic. "It may be just a ploy to neutralize international concern over human rights. And they may be doing it with no actual intent to make the situation better in Tibet and to enact a prolonged resolution," he said.
A former U.S. businessman who has dedicated himself to securing freedom for Chinese political prisoners, John Kamm, notes that China recently released several Tibetan prisoners. He said that was followed by a visit to Tibet by the brother of the Dalai Lama and then the Tibetan delegation last month.
"I am not yet comfortable in saying that the releases to date presage any change in policy toward Tibet. There are some other signs of interest... The sharp increase in the number of diplomats and journalists being allowed to travel in Tibet is another item of interest. Putting it all together, there might be something underway, but I do think it is premature to reach that conclusion," Mr. Kamm said.
Mr. Kamm said there may be a link between China's gestures on Tibet and Beijing's efforts to improve its relations with Washington.
Mary Beth Markey does not see the prisoner releases as a sign of China easing its policies in Tibet. She said the prisoners had been treated harshly in prison, were released on medical parole, and would be re-arrested if they repeat the same actions that China arrested them for in the first place.
But Carol Lee Hamrin, a China specialist at George Mason University, said the recent developments, especially the Dalai Lama's delegation to China, are part of a significant step forward. "It seemed the Chinese had basically decided to wait until he died and deal with a weaker Tibetan independence movement at that point, and hopefully have a hand in declaring who the next Dalai Lama is, and so forth. So, to reopen those doors for dialogue seems to be significant. At least, the Tibetans in exile are treating them as significant, to the point where they have asked that there be no demonstrations against Jiang (Zemin) when he is in the United States," Ms. Hamrin said.
But Ms. Markey said many activists may still demonstrate because they believe that past pressure they exerted on Chinese leaders travelling abroad helped lead to the breakthrough that paved the way for the recent Tibetan delegation to China.