Jiang keeps channels open to Dalai Lama

Clinton In China
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a moment of improbable humour, writes Teresa Poole. "Let me say something that will perhaps be unpopular with everyone," said Bill Clinton. "I have spent time with the Dalai Lama, I believe him to be an honest man. And I believe that if he had a conversation with President Jiang [Zemin], they would like each other very much." Mr Clinton laughed heartily.

And so did Mr Jiang. In China's pantheon of political devils, only Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui comes close to matching the opprobrium in which the Dalai Lama is held. Yet here was the US President suggesting that Tibet's exiled spiritual leader might prove congenial company for Mr Jiang.

The subject of Tibet was always certain to be raised by Mr Clinton. In his prepared statement, the US President said: "I urge President Jiang to pursue a dialogue with the Dalai Lama."

And there it might have been left, had Mr Jiang not returned to the subject. After attempting to defend China's record in Tibet, he said that if the Dalai Lama were to publicly make a statement that "Tibet is an inalienable part of China, and he must also recognise that Taiwan is a province of China, then the door to dialogue and negotiation is open." And in an unexpected admission from the mainland, he added: "Actually we are having several channels of communications with the Dalai Lama."

No one expects China's position on Tibet to become any more negotiable than it has been. But in one revealing moment, Mr Jiang gave a glimpse of the difficulties Peking has in understanding why other countries abhor its policies in Tibet.

"I myself am an atheist," he said. "During my visit to the US last year and during my previous visit to European countries, I found that although the education, science and technology have developed to a very high level and the people are now enjoying modern civilisation, still quite a number of them have a belief in Lamaism.

"This is a question that I am still studying, and still looking into. I want to find out the reason why."