Chinese, Tibet in first formal talks since riots

BEIJING — Chinese and Tibetan envoys on Tuesday began their first formal talks since bloody protests swept Tibetan areas of western China three months ago, in a dialogue that may affect the Olympic Games here next month.

China kept largely silent about the two-day talks, declining to outline the issues to be discussed or even the venue.

Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile in India, said in a telephone interview that the two sides began negotiations Tuesday morning and would "talk about proper implementation of autonomy for the Tibetan people."

"We're very much looking for a concrete step," he added.

The timing of the talks — five weeks before the Summer Olympics open — has given rise to talk that China agreed to the negotiations to defuse international criticism in the run-up to the Olympics to avoid the possibility of protests by world leaders.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday that if the talks on Tibet went well, he'd probably change his mind and attend the opening ceremonies Aug. 8.

Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic voiced deep concern at China's heavy-handed measures in combating rioting that erupted in Tibetan areas of western China in mid-March. The ethnic unrest was the worst to grip China in nearly two decades.

After a spasm of violence March 14 that gripped Lhasa, Tibet's capital, scores of protests erupted in Tibetan towns across the western part of the nation. China said that 22 people were killed; Tibetan activists said that the death toll was nearly 10 times higher.

China says that the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetans, incited the unrest in a drive to seek independence for Tibet, a charge that the Nobel Peace laureate refutes. For his part, the Dalai Lama says China stifles religious freedom and seeks to weaken Tibetan culture and identity to ensure its control of the mountain region.

Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, personal envoys of the Dalai Lama, are taking part in the talks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said. Liu didn't identify the Chinese negotiators.

The two sides met for an informal dialogue May 4 near Hong Kong, but this week's talks compose the seventh formal round of negotiations, which began in 2002.

Since early May, both sides have taken steps to ease distrust.

The Dalai Lama led a prayer ceremony June 4 for victims of a devastating earthquake that ravaged Sichuan province in early May, leaving at least 70,000 victims.

China freed nearly 1,200 Tibetans who'd been arrested during the unrest, and it reopened Tibet last week to limited foreign tourism.

"Certain steps have been taken over the last two months to reaffirm confidence between the two parties," said Lawrence J. Brahm, an author who's acted as an interlocutor between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.

Samdhong Rinpoche said Tibetan negotiators sought "genuine and meaningful autonomy" for Tibetans except on matters of foreign affairs and national defense.

Two visiting members of the United States Congress implored China to negotiate with the Dalai Lama.

"The Dalai Lama has made it absolutely clear that he's not looking to be separated from China but to be able to have a degree of autonomy within China," said Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican.

Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, called on President Bush to stay away from the Olympics opening ceremonies unless China takes immediate steps to release hundreds of political prisoners. Bush has said he plans to attend the ceremonies.