Dalai Lama Envoys in China for Talks

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Two representatives of the Dalai Lama arrive in Hong Kong on Friday for the latest round of talks with Chinese officials. Robert Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, talks with Melissa Block about what progress is expected out of the discussions.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Talks are to begin as early as this weekend between Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama. It would be the first official meeting since the deadly protest that began in Tibet in March. The Chinese have not said who will take part in the meeting with top aides to the exiled Tibetan leader.

Robert Barnett is director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University. He says that Chinese might send a lower-level official from the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs. And Barnett says whatever the Chinese decide will be telling in the midst of China's ongoing crackdown in Tibet.

Professor ROBERT BARNETT (Columbia University): I think it signals how seriously they take the issue of face, that they don't want to be seen to be receiving these people in anything that would suggest they were giving way to any kind of pressure beyond the minimum that they should show. So we saw that very clearly with the statement issued by the Chinese side last week recognizing that they would agree to these talks, which began with saying in response to the repeated request of the Dalai's side. So it's all being phrased in that way.

It may be that on the sidelines, higher-level meetings might take place that they're not admitting to in any official way. So that's something that the outside world will be looking to see signs of.

BLOCK: What conceivably could come out of these talks that would pave the way toward negotiations down the road?

Prof. BARNETT: We have to take a step back here and take a historical view, that even for these talks to take place at all in the current climate after the terrible actions and responses that have taken place in Tibet recently, it is quite an achievement. To expect an outcome of any striking kind would really be very unlikely.

What I think probably everyone is hoping for is at least another meeting. If the Chinese could just agree to schedule the next meeting, that would be a great step forward. In the past, each meeting has - have been scheduled when the Chinese felt like it, often nine months or a year later.

The second thing is, will they ever agree to step these up to the level of negotiation? That may be quite a long way off, and I don't think we should push for that too fast, because actually a slow process of the two sides getting to know each other is beneficial. But the big problems here are, will the Chinese agree to the Tibetan demand that they talk first about the current developments inside Tibet where there's been a huge number of arrests by thousands? Some people are saying reports of a lot of people shot dead, the Chinese side saying that 22 were killed by Tibetan demonstrators. So both sides have a lot to talk about, about what's exactly going on inside Tibet now. If they could do that, that would be progress in itself.

BLOCK: Well, if the Tibetan side wants the current situation in Tibet to be a subject of discussion, what does the Chinese side want to be talking about?

Prof. BARNETT: They haven't revealed their hand there. They've just so far been very aggressive in their diplomacy, criticizing the Tibetans for the things they're asking for rather than revealing what China wants. But I think we can be pretty sure of one thing. If the Tibetans raised the issue here of what they call return to normalcy in Tibet - that means trying to persuade the Chinese to end this very repressive crackdown - the Chinese will come back at them really strongly and say you instigated all these protests, we have the proof, here's the proof. Now, that means the whole talks will be go - will be taken up with the Tibetans disproving the evidence that the Chinese will present to them. I think that's what we have to worry about happening here.

BLOCK: How much would you say, Professor Barnett, that these talks this weekend are for show, they are for international consumption for the Chinese government to be able to say we have done what you asked, we have talked with representatives of the Dalai Lama? And how much are they actually genuine expressions of a desire for change, for progress?

Prof. BARNETT: Well, I think I'm going to sidestep that question because it involves our second-guessing the motives of what is a vast body of incredibly sophisticated leaders in China who all have different views; so there's a lot of juggling going on between different factions.

But anyway, even if we were able to work out the answer to that question, I think we have to see that some of the Dalai Lama's politics is about - I think it's about the kind of alchemy of reality that when people sit down together, unexpected things can come out of it, especially around the table, especially with these rather unusual figures like him and his chief negotiator, people who have a certain charisma that may be able to produce something which is not what we expect, that's not what the political scientists will say is going to happen.

So the Chinese, they feel they're in control of these things. Maybe they do feel this is just for show, we don't know that. But nevertheless, I think the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans feel benefit could come out of it. You don't know how change is going to happen.

BLOCK: Well, Professor Barnett, thanks so much for talking with us.

Prof. BARNETT: Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Robert Barnett. He's the director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

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