BEIJING – China stuck to its hard line in its first talks with Tibetan envoys in 15 months, refusing to discuss changes to the Himalayan region's status and thus dashing hopes of a breakthrough.
Chinese negotiator Du Qinglin said Monday he told the Dalai Lama's representatives that Beijing was only willing to address the future of the exiled spiritual leader — not any greater autonomy for Tibet.
Du, head of the United Front Department of the Communist Party, the government department that handles the talks, said China's national interest was inviolable, and "there can be no room for discussion, no room for compromise" on territorial issues.
China maintains that Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say the region was functionally independent for much of its history.
At the last talks in 2008, the Dalai Lama's envoys proposed a way for Tibetans to achieve more autonomy under the Chinese constitution — a key demand of the minority community. But China apparently rejected the plan, saying it would not allow Tibet the kind of latitude granted to the territories of Hong Kong and Macau. Chinese officials said they were only willing to discuss the return of the Dalai Lama, who fled to exile in 1959.
The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India, said last week it hoped the two sides would be able to revisit the proposal for greater autonomy. But Du's remarks, carried by the official Xinhua News Agency and posted on the United Front Department's Web site, made clear there was no such progress.
"The only thing there is to discuss, on the premise that you give up separatist words and actions, is the future of the Dalai Lama and the people around him," Du said. "We hope the Dalai Lama will face reality squarely and return to the patriotic stance."
Beijing demonizes the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and says he seeks to destroy China's sovereignty by pushing independence for Tibet. The Dalai Lama has maintained for decades he wants some form of autonomy that would allow Tibetans to freely practice their culture, language and religion under China's rule, not independence.
Du said the exiles' calls for a "greater Tibet" incorporating all Tibetan-inhabited areas, a region occupying about one-quarter of China's total territory, and a higher level of autonomy violated the Chinese constitution. He said only if the Dalai Lama abandoned such requests could there be a basis for contact.
But the Dalai Lama has always sought an arrangement "where Tibet can enjoy genuine autonomy within the framework of the Chinese constitution," said Thubten Samphel, the spokesman of the government-in-exile in Dharmsala.
The Dalai Lama's envoys, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, returned to India early Monday after meeting officials in Beijing over the weekend, according to Chhime R. Chhoekyapa, the Dalai Lama's secretary.
Details about the discussions from the Tibetan delegation were not immediately available. After arriving in the Indian capital, the two envoys were expected to go to the northern Indian hill town of Dharmsala to brief the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, on the talks, he said.
Tibetan areas have been tense in recent years, with the minority community complaining about restrictions on Buddhism, government propaganda campaigns against their revered Dalai Lama, and an influx of Chinese migrants that leave Tibetans feeling marginalized. Those feelings boiled over in deadly anti-Chinese riots in 2008 that shocked Beijing's leaders.
China's decision to hold the talks could have been prompted by signals from U.S. officials in recent weeks that Obama might soon meet the exiled Tibetan leader — something Chinese officials are keen to avoid before President Hu Jintao travels to Washington, possibly in April. The new talks were welcomed by the United States, Britain and Canada.