Chinese agree to Tibetan talks

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 Rimpoche, prime minister of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, said 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 with whom the Chinese leaders should feel comfortable conversing. Bush has said he has urged 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 said.

Tibetan officials in the U.S. said the Dalai Lama left New York for India on Thursday and is scheduled to arrive in Dharmsala today.

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 as 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 Davis, a law professor and China expert at Hong Kong’s City University.

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