U.S. President Barack Obama raised the plight of the Tibetan people directly with visiting Chinese leader Hu Jintao on Wednesday, calling on Beijing to resume talks with the Dalai Lama on greater autonomy for the Himalayan region.
As Obama and his counterpart sparred over human rights at a rare press conference, the U.S. leader said Beijing should make better efforts to reconcile differences with the Tibetans, who complain their rights are being eroded under Chinese rule.
“Even as we, the United States, recognize that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China, the United States continues to support further dialogue between the government of China and the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve concerns and differences, including the reservation of the religious and cultural identity of the Tibetan people,” Obama said.
Some see Obama’s move to publicly raise the Tibet issue as an attempt to make amends for what was widely considered to be a snub of the Dalai Lama during the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit to Washington last year.
Obama finally met with the Dalai Lama at the White House in February 2010 after declining to meet with him during his previous visit to Washington in October 2009.
But some advisers had argued against the delay, which was widely panned at home as an appeasement of China. At the meeting that was finally held, the president agreed only to a brief meeting with the Dalai Lama that was closed to the press and held in the White House basement Map Room.
The Dalai Lama’s representatives have met with Chinese officials a total of nine times to discuss Chinese rule in Tibet, but little progress has been made in the talks. The last time the envoys sat down with Chinese officials was in January last year, when the two sides met in Beijing.
Hu did not respond directly to Obama’s comment about Tibet, but did admit later that as a developing country with a large population and in the midst of reform, China could do better to protect the rights of its people.
“China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights,” he said.
He added that China would be willing to engage in dialogue and exchanges with the United States “on the basis of mutual respect and the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.”
‘Make change happen’
Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said that while it was atypical of Obama to make such a strong statement about Tibet on the public stage, his message was “nothing new.”
“That is what the president has been saying to the Chinese privately. And yes, it’s enormously gratifying to have him say it publicly. But again, it’s not new … and it’s something that Hu Jintao would have heard many times before,” Markey said.
“It is Hu, and it is only President Hu, who has the authority to make change happen in Tibet. So it would have been much more gratifying to then have President Hu say something and … he was pretty dodgy on those human rights issues,” she said.
“[But] the Chinese do not like to appear to be acting at the behest of U.S. concerns for Tibet.”
Many Tibetans have chafed for years under Chinese rule, which they say has eroded their national culture and curbed their freedom to practice Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama has accused China of perpetrating "cultural genocide" in Tibet, and is regarded by Beijing as a dangerous separatist.
Call for concern
As Obama and Hu fielded questions at the joint press conference, hundreds of Tibetan and other demonstrators converged on Lafayette Park outside the White House, protesting against what they called China’s human rights abuses.
Some chanted "Who is a liar? Hu Jintao is a liar" and "Killer, killer, Hu Jintao."
Two actors wearing 12-foot-tall skeleton costumes played out an attack on others portraying a Chinese dragon in front of a banner that read, "Hu has Tibetan skeletons in his closet."
"We're here to urge President Obama to raise the issue of human rights and freedom for the Tibetan people during his talk with President Hu Jintao, publicly and vigorously, because these are universal values and especially ones that us Americans ... cherish," said Tenzin Dolkar of Students for a Free Tibet.
Written by Joshua Lipes.