BEIJING (Reuters) - China resumed fence-mending talks with envoys of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, on Tuesday in a move that could burnish its international image weeks before the Chinese capital hosts the Olympics.
It is their second closed-door meeting since rioting erupted in Tibet in March and heaped international pressure on China to deal with the Nobel laureate, who fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.
A senior aide to the Dalai Lama confirmed the talks began on Tuesday morning, but China shrouded the meeting in secrecy declining to confirm or deny details.
“As far as we are aware the talks started this morning. They will continue through the day and tomorrow,” Tenzin Taklha said, adding that the envoys were returning on Thursday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said he could not give any more details of the meeting between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Chinese officials.
Asked about French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s statement that his decision on whether to attend the Beijing Olympics would be based on whether he sees progress in the Tibet talks, Liu said Tibet was a domestic issue.
“Tibet is our internal affair, and the Chinese government’s relevant department’s contacts with the Dalai Lama’s representatives are an internal affair, and we oppose any foreign leader meeting the Dalai Lama in any setting and oppose linking the Olympic Games to the Tibet issue,” Liu told reporters.
The current round of talks, the sixth since 2002 and delayed by three weeks in the wake of China’s deadliest earthquake in three decades, was preceded by a glut of goodwill, arguably somewhat more from the Dalai Lama’s side than China’s.
During a trip to Britain in May, he said he was willing to attend the August 8-24 Beijing Olympics if talks between his envoys and China yielded results. He did not elaborate.
But a Chinese source with ties to the leadership told Reuters an Olympic invite for the Dalai Lama or a summit with President Hu Jintao was out of the question unless Hu can mollify conservatives in his ruling Communist Party.
The Dalai Lama says he wants autonomy for the Himalayan region. But China is unconvinced and brands him a separatist.
He extended an olive branch to China praising the Chinese for their handling of the aftermath of the tremor that left a trail of death and destruction in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
The quake killed about 70,000 people and put China at the receiving end of international sympathy after a period of vilification over a post-riot crackdown in Tibet.
Anti-Chinese protesters had disrupted the international leg of the Olympic torch relay and Chinese studying or living abroad staged counter-protests after China blamed followers of the Dalai Lama for instigating the March violence — a charge he denies.
The Dalai Lama held a prayer meeting for Chinese quake victims in Dharamsala on June 4 and his envoys visited the Chinese Embassy in London to express their condolences.
“There has been an unprecedented amount of confidence measures in the past two months,” said Laurence Brahm, an American author and interlocutor between Beijing and Dharamsala, the northern Indian town where the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile is based.
“We have an ambience moving in a positive trajectory,” Brahm said. “If it continues, we can hope for a successful round.”
The government-in-exile has urged Tibetans to stop protesting outside Chinese embassies and consulates worldwide.
In a concession, Chinese authorities have freed many Tibetans detained in the wake of the rioting, a source with knowledge of the releases said, requesting anonymity.
Chinese authorities also reciprocated the Dalai Lama’s goodwill by reopening Tibet to foreign tourists last month.
“China is very aware of the bad press they got over those protests, and I don’t think they want to be caught by surprise again. To that effect, there may be some concessions that are made,” said Dru Gladney, a China watcher at Pomona College.
Mainstream media have not parroted diatribes by Tibet’s notoriously hardline Communist Party boss Zhang Qingli, who said the Dalai Lama had the “face of a man but the heart of a beast”.
But a commentary in the English-language online edition of state news agency Xinhua called the Dalai Lama a “flunky” of foreign forces and a “traitor”, in a sign hawks in the Chinese government do not want the talks to succeed.
“It does not bode well for resolving the ongoing crisis in Tibet when Chinese state media is spewing such poisonous anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric on the eve of negotiations,” Anne Holmes of the Free Tibet Campaign said in an emailed statement.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Chris Buckley in Beijing and Abhishek Madhukar in Dharamsala)
Editing by Ben Tan and David Fogarty