WASHINGTON - U.S. lawmakers on a rare congressional visit to Tibet last week had what they call "heated exchanges'' with Chinese officials as they called for Beijing to renew dialogue with exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, one participant said Tuesday.
Seven Democrats led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made the first visit by U.S. lawmakers to Tibet since anti-government unrest in 2008. The region has largely been off limits to foreign media and diplomats.
Rep. Jim McGovern said the visit was an important gesture by the Chinese government but that "too often'' the U.S. lawmakers heard characterizations of Tibet and the Dalai Lama that reflected old prejudices.
"I believe that the Dalai Lama is part of the solution, not the problem, to resolving the issues confronting Tibetan autonomy,'' McGovern said.
Pelosi, who last traveled to China in 2009, said the delegation's visit to Tibet followed an invitation to "come see for yourself'' when she raised congressional concerns about human rights with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a Washington visit in September.
"I considered the trip constructive, bridge building, and we want to continue building that bridge through reconciliation and clearer understanding,'' Pelosi said. They also discussed cybersecurity and climate change.
McGovern said the delegation saw what Chinese officials wanted them to see in Tibet, but at Pelosi's insistence, visited religious sites too.
The visit wasn't formally announced ahead of time, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry described it as "a normal exchange between the U.S. and Chinese legislatures."
Rep. Alan Lowenthal said they were surrounded by an "entourage of Chinese security" upon their arrival in Tibet.
"For the seven of us, there must have been 25 to 30 security people," he said. "It took us a while to work out a relationship to say, ‘Hey we need some space. We are here to learn to talk to people. We respect that you are here, but you got to give us some space around,’" he added.
They came away uncertain about what steps the Chinese government was willing to take on reconciliation in Tibet, but not feeling “the door was entirely closed to anything,” including to opening a U.S. consulate in the regional capital of Lhasa.
"Some discussions were more heated than others and there were some discussions that I felt signaled openness to a constructive dialogue,'' McGovern said.
The delegation members said they continue to be concerned about human rights and religious freedom. McGovern said more needs to be done.
"One, allowing the United States to open a consulate in Lhasa, Tibet. Two, allowing more members of Congress, more journalists, more parliaments from other nations, and more people in general, including members in the Tibetan community here in the United States to travel freely in Tibet. And three, renewing the dialogue with the Dalai Lama to resolve long-standing issues of Tibet autonomy, religious practice, culture and heritage."
While Chinese authorities accuse the Dalai Lama of separatism, claiming he is trying to split China and Tibet, Pelosi said the Dalai Lama is for autonomy, which the United States supports. She said, "We believe Tibet is part of China."