Why China's activists speak out for Tibet

Facing a struggle of its own, Democracy Party hints at alliance with the Dalai Lama.

It's not as if China's pro-democracy activists need a new cause; their task seems large enough. But in an unusual sign of empathy for Tibet and its exiles, leading dissident Xu Wenli says he wants the exiled Dalai Lama to return and preside over a Buddhist renaissance in the former Himalayan kingdom.

Mr. Xu's stance is radical because it signals a potential alliance between Chinese activists and the Dalai Lama. Airing a view certain to infuriate Beijing, Xu says the Communist Party should loosen its control and allow Tibet to map out its future in a democratic union with China.

"The people of Tibet should be given a very high degree of religious, cultural, and social autonomy," says Xu.

Xu and fellow democrats across China are trying to legalize the China Democratic Party, which would be the country's first opposition party since the 1949 Communist revolution. Xu was elected chairman of the fledgling party last week and spoke to the Monitor by telephone. His embrace of the Dalai Lama stands in sharp contrast to the Communist Party's endless war of words with the Buddhist leader, who heads Tibet's government-in-exile from India. The Democratic Party's stance adds to the international community's pressure to end human-rights abuses in the former Himalayan kingdom.

Claiming centuries of sovereignty over Tibet, China apparently fears the revered Dalai Lama's return could set off widespread protests for independence. Tibetans who refute China's claim are routinely imprisoned. The region's theocracy and way of life were long protected by the world's highest mountain range. Yet many Tibetans say their culture has been under constant attack since Chinese Communist troops invaded in 1950.

From an early age, Chinese children are taught that Tibet was a barbarous, superstition-laden land. A news blackout here on the suppression of antigovernment protests in Tibet, and on the killing or jailing of demonstrators over the last decades, meant few Chinese ever knew of unrest on "the roof of the world."

Yet an information revolution is allowing urban Chinese to now catch realistic glimpses of Tibet. "Access to the World Wide Web, along with [radio] broadcasts into China by VOA [Voice of America], Radio Free Asia, and the BBC," Xu says, "is providing accurate news for a growing number of Chinese on Tibet's problems."

Frank Lu, who heads a Hong Kong-based human-rights group, agrees. "Now the Dalai Lama is more and more widely perceived within China as a good and peaceful person who wants to help end the government's repression in Tibet."

Although the Chinese government since the 1980s has funded the rebuilding of some monasteries and temples destroyed by Communist zealots or the Army, it still strictly limits the number of monks and nuns in Tibet, says John Ackerly, a spokesman for the Washington-based group International Campaign for Tibet. Beijing's hold over Tibet's religious and cultural life "causes 3,000 to 4,000 Tibetans to flee abroad every year, with most of the refugees young monks and nuns."

President Clinton's request that China's President Jiang hold talks with the Dalai Lama, broadcast live on TV here during the June US-China summit, "had an electrifying effect inside Tibet," says Mr. Ackerly. Mr. Clinton "made a lot of Chinese question the propaganda that's coming out of Beijing," he adds.

During that joint press conference, the door to talks was open if the Dalai Lama renounced seeking Tibetan independence, Mr. Jiang said. The Chinese leader since has apparently reneged on that agreement. Instead of opening talks with the Dalai Lama, China, through the state-run press, has raged against his latest attempts to spotlight religious and political abuses in Tibet. Before meeting with Clinton Nov. 10, the Dalai Lama extended an olive branch to Beijing. "I am not seeking independence for Tibet, nor do my actions seek its separation from the People's Republic of China," the Dalai Lama said.

But Beijing condemned the American president, vice president, and secretary of state for meeting the Buddhist leader, warning that the Dalai Lama's White House reception could harm Sino-US ties.

The Dalai Lama's globe-trotting spreads "propaganda aimed at hurting the reputation of the [Chinese] central government," says Li Guoqing, a senior Beijing-based official. "There are absolutely no human-rights problems in Tibet, and the government will not enter talks with the Dalai Lama until he stops spreading lies," adds Mr. Li. Yet the Dalai Lama is unlikely to agree to stop exposing a Communist clampdown on Tibet's clergy before talks can begin, says Ackerly.

ALTHOUGH his apartment has been surrounded by police since he announced his party's Beijing branch last week, Xu says "China is likely to evolve into a multiparty democracy within the next decade." His forecast appears optimistic: Police have detained activists attempting to register the Democratic Party in 11 provinces over the past few months. While the party's leaders are openly active, Xu declines to say exactly how many people are members.

Last month, China signed the UN's Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and more Chinese are testing Beijing's willingness to grant freedom of speech and association. The document also calls on signatories to allow citizens to choose their form of government and worship freely - rights that have never been extended in Tibet. "Now the government uses guns and cannons to solve its ethnic problems but that policy is fueling pro-independence sentiment in Tibet," Xu says.

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