BEIJING — In a sudden shift, China agreed Friday to meet with envoys of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader it accuses of instigating anti-government protests in Tibet last month in an effort to scuttle the Beijing Summer Olympics.
A short dispatch from the official Xinhua news agency said the meeting would take place “in the coming days.”
China has heaped invective on the Dalai Lama since riots left parts of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in smoldering ruins March 14, vilifying him as a criminal, and the surprising announcement of a new round of talks seemed aimed at defusing frictions with the West on the issue of Tibet before the Summer Games.
The Xinhua dispatch quoted an unnamed official as saying “the relevant department of the central government” would soon make contact with the Dalai Lama.
“It is hoped that through contact and consultation, the Dalai side will take credible moves to stop activities aimed at splitting China, stop plotting and inciting violence and stop disrupting and sabotaging the Beijing Olympic Games so as to create conditions for talks,” the agency quoted the official as saying.
The announcement marked the first sign of détente since the protests erupted in Tibet in mid-March, raising tensions between China and the West, and brought positive remarks from Western capitals and from Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
“We welcome this,” said Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama.
China’s announcement came as a series of high-level European officials concluded a visit to Beijing, and they, too, hailed the news.
“We see this as a very positive gesture by the Chinese authorities,” said Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, adding that Premier Wen Jiabao told him of the upcoming talks at a “private tete-a-tete” Thursday evening.
“The Chinese say they are ready to discuss everything except sovereignty. And so if the concern of the Dalai Lama is, as he has always stated, the respect for cultural identity, religious identity, and autonomy inside China, I believe there is real room for dialogue,” Barroso said.
Anti-Chinese protests erupted in mid-March in the autonomous region of Tibet and in neighboring provinces where Tibetans reside. China says 22 people died in the protests in Lhasa, while Tibetan exile groups say many more were killed in the violence that swept across much of Western China.
The unrest spread outside China’s borders, turning a global Olympic torch relay into a contest between pro-Chinese and pro-Tibet exile groups, obligating police to blanket relay stops in heavy security cordons. Many Chinese grew angry over the trouble-plagued relay — and what they viewed as anti-Chinese bias in Western media — and they launched a boycott movement of a major French retailer in China, Carrefour.
Washington and European capitals have been leaning on Beijing to negotiate directly with the Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace laureate who fled his homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Between 2002 and the summer of 2007, envoys of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government held six rounds of discussions about the possibility of full-fledged negotiations. A formal dialogue never got off the ground, though, before the talks broke down last year.
The Dalai Lama has insisted that he only seeks greater autonomy and religious freedom for some six million Tibetans in China, not independence. But China claims he is lying, and that he hopes to sever Tibet from China and ruin the Summer Games.
The head of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University, Robert Barnett, said the mood of new talks is likely to be sour due to the vilification of the Dalai Lama by Chinese officials in recent weeks.
“It’s unlikely that there’d be anybody else in the world who would still be open to negotiate given the amount of abuse he’s had to take,” Barnett said.
Barnett described previous talks as “pre-negotiations” that never got around to substantive issues, and lacked confidence-building measures to build momentum.