Live Exchange on Tibet Seen as a Stunning, if Puzzling, Success
-- by Tyler Marshall, Times Staff Writer, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, June 28, 1998
BEIJING -- In the eight months since President Clinton's foreign policy team
elevated religious freedom and human rights in Tibet to a priority issue in
Washington's prickly relationship with China, visible progress has been
Prospects for any kind of breakthrough during Clinton's nine-day trip to
China were considered so bleak that the State Department's recently created
post of Tibet policy coordinator, occupied by Gregory Craig, was not even a
part of the 200-strong American delegation for the trip. And the 14-page
document titled "Achievements of the U.S.-China Summit" issued Saturday after
Clinton's meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin does not mention the
Then came the extraordinary news conference between the two leaders, and
suddenly, amid the unscripted public exchanges on the most sensitive of
issues that divide the two countries, Tibet burst into the spotlight.
Responding to Clinton's opening statement that included a call for China to
open a dialogue with Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in return for
the Dalai Lama's pledge to accept that Tibet is part of China, Jiang declared
a conditioned readiness to do just that. "Actually, as long as the Dalai Lama
can publicly make the statement and a commitment that Tibet is an inalienable
part of China, and he must also recognize Taiwan as a province of China, then
the door to dialogue and negotiation is open," Jiang said.
While Jiang repeated his routine denunciation of followers of the Dalai Lama
during the news conference, he conspicuously omitted the personal attacks on
the Dalai Lama himself that almost always accompany Chinese statements on
Clinton, who knows both leaders well, concluded the news conference by
describing the Dalai Lama as "an honest man" and suggesting that if Jiang met
the Tibetan leader, "they would like each other very much." U.S. officials,
clearly caught off balance by the spontaneous exchanges, were reluctant to
assess their possible longer-term impact. The Dalai Lama has already come
close to declaring Tibet a part of China, disavowing any immediate aspiration
for independence. And while Jiang's call for him to recognize Taiwan as a
Chinese province is a new demand, U.S. officials did not see the condition as
"It's puzzling, but I don't think it's a showstopper," a White House official
said. Followers of the Dalai Lama had a similar initial reaction.
At a Chinese government news conference later in the day, Foreign Ministry
spokesman Zhu Bangzhao quickly fell back to more normal practice, dismissing
the Dalai Lama as one who "wants to split the motherland" and who is the
central obstacle to improving conditions in Tibet.
Still, for Tibetan activists, Saturday's public comments by Chinese and
American leaders--on an issue whose very mention has long been considered by
the Chinese as taboo--were nothing short of a stunning success.
That the exchanges unfolded in China live and apparently uncensored to
television and radio audiences estimated in the hundreds of millions merely
added to the sweetness of the moment.
"We're very pleased that there's an open and public debate on Tibet," said
John Ackerly, president of the Washington-based International Campaign for
Tibet, a nonprofit organization that supports the Dalai Lama's cause. "After
all these years, we're especially glad that Tibetans themselves could see
this. They've worked long and hard to get the issue to this level, and it's
Awareness of the Tibetan struggle for greater political and human rights has
gradually gained a greater public profile in the United States, especially
among young people, spurred by a series of films, including historical
Hollywood extravaganzas "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun," and a more
recent, modest effort by the Virginia-based filmmaker Paul Wagner, titled
"Windhorse," that focuses on the contemporary struggle for human rights in
Earlier this month, a weekend rock concert promoting the Tibetan cause drew
overflow crowds into RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. The Clinton
administration's decision to push actively on the long-dormant issue of Tibet
stems in part from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's intense interest
in human rights.
However, when she raised Tibet during a half-hour meeting with Jiang in May,
she was reportedly treated to an extended lecture.
The administration had sought both the release of at least some Tibetan
prisoners held in Chinese prisons and the opening of a new dialogue between
the Chinese regime and the Dalai Lama.
As the summit neared, expectations were gradually lowered to negotiating a
series of confidence-building measures that might pave the way for talks
between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama escaped a
Communist Chinese crackdown in 1959 by fleeing to India, where he has lived
Barely 24 hours before Saturday's presidential news conference, Clinton's
national security advisor, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, said that "we have made
a number of suggestions relating to . . . Tibet" in talks with the Chinese
However, he added, "I would not anticipate that we would see the fruits of
those discussions while we are here."