BEIJING – China agreed Friday to meet an envoy of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, bending to rising calls for talks after weeks of anti-government protests by his supporters that threatened to tarnish the Beijing Olympics.
The development came as the Olympic flame is wrapping up the international portion of its global torch relay — a journey that has seen large demonstrations in the past month in the West and elsewhere against China's rule in Tibet.
The communist government's statement stops well short of restarting actual negotiations on what the exiled Tibetan characterizes as alleged cultural and religious repression in his homeland.
It also restates long-established preconditions for negotiations, including that the Dalai Lama unambiguously recognize Tibet as a part of China. Their reappearance and the timing of Friday's announcement could forestall any immediate breakthroughs.
"The Dalai Lama is always open to have a dialogue," Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, told The Associated Press at the government's headquarters in the Indian hill town of Dharmsala.
"But," he added, "the present circumstances in Tibet do not appear to be an appropriate platform for a meaningful dialogue."
Beijing has faced a chorus of calls from world leaders to open a dialogue, and White House press secretary Dana Perino said the Bush administration was encouraged by the news.
She said President Bush believes the Dalai Lama is a "man of peace" and someone that the Chinese leaders should feel comfortable conversing with. Bush has said that been urging the two to increase their interactions.
"We are hopeful that this will be a new direction in their relationship," Perino said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he raised the issue with China's premier on Thursday and called Friday's announcement encouraging.
"I believe, I believe, there's real room for a dialogue," Barroso told reporters.
Tibetan officials in the U.S. said the Dalai Lama left New York on Thursday for India and is scheduled to arrive in Dharmsala on Saturday.
Tibetan protests that sparked deadly rioting in the capital Lhasa in March have galvanized critics of the communist regime and threatened to overshadow the Olympics, an object of massive national pride for China.
Impassioned demonstrations have followed the flame it traveled the world. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested he might skip the opening ceremony of the Olympics unless Beijing engages the Dalai Lama.
That pressure suggests China may be simply seeking to placate foreign critics ahead of the games through a form of "damage control," said Michael C. Davis, a law professor and China expert at Hong Kong's City University.
Similar offers from Beijing in the past have yielded little, leaving the exile community exhausted and skeptical, Davis said.
"One has to wonder if anyone would buy this argument again, especially if it means squandering the opportunity to draw attention to the problem offered by the Olympics," Davis said.
China's announcement of its willingness to meet gave few details, saying only that the "relevant department of the central government will have contact and consultation with Dalai's private representative in the coming days."
"It is hoped that through contact and consultation, the Dalai side will take credible moves to stop activities aimed at splitting China, stop plotting and inciting violence, and stop disrupting and sabotaging the Beijing Olympic Games so as to create conditions for talks," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted an unidentified official as saying.
The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet amid a failed uprising in 1959, says he seeks meaningful autonomy for Tibet rather than independence from Chinese rule.
Still, the statement was something of a reversal in the face of Beijing's relentless claims that the Dalai Lama and his followers had orchestrated last month's violence in Tibet.
In recent weeks, the government has branded the Dalai Lama a "wolf in monk's robes" and his followers the "scum of Buddhism," helping whip up nationalistic outrage that has included attacks on Tibet supporters by Chinese mobs mobilized to cheer the Olympic torch relay. Earlier this month, it accused the Nobel Peace laureate and his supporters of planning suicide attacks.
China and representatives of the Dalai Lama's government in exile held six rounds of inconclusive talks that foundered in 2006. The Dalai Lama's emissaries were allowed to visit Tibetan areas in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, but not Tibet itself.
Despite long-running tensions, both sides have kept open back channels for dialogue, although they do not often talk about them, and China does not acknowledge the existence of formal negotiations. Recent discussions have been led by the Dalai Lama's special envoy, Lodi Gyari.
Last month's protests marked the most widespread and sustained action against Beijing's rule in decades, focusing attention on accusations that China's policies in the Himalayan region are eroding its traditional Buddhist culture and mainly benefit Chinese who moved there since its 1951 occupation by Communist troops.
China says 22 people died in violence in Tibet's capital of Lhasa, while overseas Tibet supporters say many times that number have been killed in protests and the security crackdown across Tibetan regions of western China.
International criticism and the raucous protests surrounding the torch have prompted an angry nationalist backlash among many Chinese, further raising tensions ahead of the Olympics.