Developments early in the year gave some Tibetans in exile hope that China may be willing to work toward reconciliation on the Tibet issue. But the recent death sentences given to two Tibetan activists dampened those hopes. Does the new leadership in Beijing provide a new opportunity for Tibet?
The director of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, Bhuchung Tsering, says developments in 2002 gave him hope the Chinese government may be ready to open talks with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader who fled to exile in India in 1959. "There were unprecedented releases of some Tibetan political prisoners, in fact some well known Tibetan political prisoners early in the year," he said. "Then, later in the fall, we had the historic development of a Tibetan delegation visiting China and Tibet on behalf of his holiness the Dalai Lama. And for the first time there was a hope that talks on a negotiated solution to the Tibetan issue could begin."
But the Washington director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, Mike Jendrzejczyk, says the optimism generated by those developments may not have been warranted. "I think there was perhaps too much optimism when two representatives of the Dalai Lama were invited to visit China and Tibet earlier this year," said Mike Jendrzejczyk. "Several weeks after their visit, the Chinese appointed governor of Tibet made a very strong statement in the China Daily, a major Chinese newspaper, basically condemning the Dalai Lama, saying the Dalai Lama can never represent the Tibetan people, and he's done nothing beneficial to Tibet."
And then, in early December, a court in China's southwestern province of Sichuan handed down death sentences to two Tibetan activists convicted of a series of bombings. Lobsan Dhondup received a death sentence, and Tulku Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, a Buddhist holy man or lama, was given a suspended death sentence.
The international community is urging China not to carry out the death sentences, arguing that the trials were secret and the two may have been tortured into confessing.
A representative of the Dalai Lama at the Office of Tibet in New York, Nawan Rabgyal, says Tenzin Deleg has always advocated peaceful action. "Tulku Tenzin Deleg, he is one of the great Buddhist teachers," said Nawan Rabgyal. "Not only a teacher, he is a champion of non-violence and environmental protection. He is a most respected Buddhist teacher, and we are  percent sure he is not involved in such allegations, in such charges."
Mr. Tsering of the International Campaign for Tibet says the Chinese government focused on Tenzin Deleg because he has worked to improve the welfare of Tibetans in China and started schools to foster spiritual and cultural activities. "What the Chinese authorities unfortunately are doing is that every action of a Tibetan which is for the welfare of the Tibetan people is being seen as political and something anti-China," he said.
Mr. Tsering calls the death sentences regrettable, but he says they do not dominate the overall pattern of the past year. And looking forward, he sees hope in China's new leader, Hu Jintao.
Mr. Hu served as the communist party secretary in Tibet in the 1980's, presiding over the 1988 crackdown against anti-Chinese demonstrations and declaring martial law. Instead of fearing what Mr. Hu may do in his new roles as the party general secretary and China's president, Mr. Tsering hopes his understanding of Tibet will help him make progress on the Tibet issue. "For the first time in Chinese history, there is a leader in Hu Jintao who has had some direct experience with Tibetan way of life," said Bhuchung Tsering. "If at all any Chinese leader is able to appreciate a little bit of Tibetan feelings, it would be Hu Jintao. And therefore, we have this opportunity."
Mr. Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch is less optimistic. He says it is premature to judge how Hu Jintao and the new lineup of leaders will handle Tibet. He notes Mr. Hu is the one who put in place many of the hard-line policies still in effect. "The human rights situation in Tibet remains dire, with continued reports of abuses of Tibetan Buddhists who are in any way suspected of being allied with the Dalai Lama, as well as the reeducation campaigns that have been going on in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries where any adherence to the Dalai Lama means expulsion from the monastery or the nunnery," he said. "So, existing controls on Tibetan Buddhism remain very tight, indeed."
Some observers speculate that if China shows more leniency toward Tibet, it may be prompted by a desire to improve Beijing's international reputation in advance of hosting the Olympics in 2008. Mr. Tsering says he would welcome any steps that improve conditions for Tibetans inside China, regardless of Beijing's motives.