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China-Tibet talks resume amid bitter climate

Talks on Tibet's future resume this week after a 14-month hiatus that has seen China tighten its grip on the Himalayan region, leaving few signs Tibetan autonomy hopes will be realised soon, observers say.

world Updated: Jan 27, 2010 12:03 IST

Talks on Tibet's future resume this week after a 14-month hiatus that has seen China tighten its grip on the Himalayan region, leaving few signs Tibetan autonomy hopes will be realised soon, observers say.

Representatives of the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama's exiled Tibetan government were to meet at an undisclosed location in China for the intermittent and secretive talks for the first time since November 2008.

Since the last round, China has maintained a tough crackdown in Tibet launched following the violent unrest that erupted in March 2008, and last week reaffirmed it would pursue economic development while keeping a tight grip.

China's growing world clout has meanwhile made it increasingly "aggressive" towards other nations that criticise its Tibet policy, said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the pressure group International Campaign for Tibet.

"The context for these talks could not be more challenging," Saunders told AFP.

During the previous round, the Dalai Lama's envoys argued the Tibetan spiritual leader's calls for "meaningful autonomy" did not violate China's constitution.

Beijing however dismisses such calls as "separatist" and has recently indicated it intends to follow a hardline approach.

"Over the past year we have seen state repression and a hardening of the Chinese position on the Dalai Lama that has created deepening tension in Tibet," Saunders said.

"This is the opposite of the stability that President Hu Jintao claims he seeks there.

Several people have been reported executed for their roles in the 2008 unrest, and earlier this month China named military veteran Padma Choling as Tibet's governor.

He promptly vowed to crush attempts at "secession" and "safeguard national unity" -- rhetoric typically aimed at the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama fled his homeland following a failed uprising in 1959 against Chinese rule, nine years after Chinese troops invaded the region.

The Communist Party leadership, including Hu, met last week to reaffirm its policy of crushing Tibetan dissent while accelerating economic development, which exiles criticise as a resource grab harmful to their culture.

"The (policy) meeting signalled basically more of the same. The proof is in the pudding, as they say," said Andrew Fischer, a Tibet expert at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Aside from the naming of a new governor, no top officials have been publicly replaced, suggesting Beijing sees no need to address "policy failures" in Tibet, said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University in New York.

In this climate, Barnett said it remains unclear why China would agree to hold talks now, but suggested it may be aimed at deflecting foreign and domestic criticism of its hard line.

"It's hard to tell for sure but they may be feeling they need to be seen, especially to Tibetans in Tibet, to be open to some sort of talks," he said.

Barnett noted, however, it was significant that last week's party gathering called for a joint policy to be adopted for "greater Tibet".

Traditional Tibetan regions are now split up among several provinces, and exiles have repeatedly demanded a comprehensive policy approach to all such regions.

Fischer added there could indeed be a desire among Communist leaders to address anger in minority regions, saying the party was jolted by savage unrest last year in the restive western region of Xinjiang.

The unrest saw violent attacks by the Muslim Uighur minority on members of the ethnic Han majority, followed by Han calls for retribution. Nearly 200 people were killed.

"Things have been particularly intense since the events in Xinjiang and the surge in quite explicit, almost racist, belligerence from some Chinese," Fischer said.

"There might be some genuine wish -- behind a hardline posture -- to change the deadlock in Tibet."