Dalai Lama to cross paths with China's President Hu on US tour

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The Independent Online

The eyes of the world will be on the visit of China's President Hu Jintao to the US for a summit with President George Bush later this month. But two days before Mr Hu arrives, another leader will be making his own trip to the US. The Dalai Lama is flying in to address the Tibetan exile community in America.

The two men's paths will almost cross at a time when the Tibet issue is back on the world agenda, after Beijing announced this week that it may allow the Dalai Lama to visit China. Mr Hu's US visit will be watched for any sign of movement on the Tibet issue.

Last month, the Dalai Lama said in his annual statement he would like to visit Wu-Tai Shan, a major Buddhist site southeast of Beijing. This week, the head of China'sstate bureau of religious affairs, Xe Xiaowen, said it might be possible.

The Dalai Lama is not about to return to the homeland he fled 47 years ago. But for him to set foot in China would be the biggest breakthrough since talks collapsed in the Eighties.

Sources at the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile in Dharamsala say he only decided to include his desire to visit China in his annual statement after talks between his representatives and Chinese government envoys in February, though they refuse to say whether the request was agreed.

Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the government-in-exile, said: "If the Chinese wanted, and if his Holiness thought it appropriate to meet Chinese leaders on a visit, it would be a wonderful opportunity to explore his Holiness's views on the issue of Tibet."

China is believed to be anxious to improve relations with the US ahead of Mr Hu's first visit there this month, and there have been suggestions the timing of the announcement over the Dalai Lama was no coincidence. Already there have been several surprise moves from China that look like an attempt to soften its image. Last month it allowed a nun jailed for 15 years to seek medical treatment in the US, and dropped charges against a New York Times researcher, although he remains in jail.

Mr Hu's visit comes as Mr Bush is courting India as a new ally, stressing their shared values of democracy. And during his 47 years of exile, it is in India that the Dalai Lama has lived.

Both sides are believed to be eager to find a solution to the Tibet issue while the current Dalai Lama is still alive. He has been speaking openly recently of the fact he may not be around much longer. When he dies, his successor will be "discovered", probably as a child who Tibetan Buddhists believe is a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. That means there will be years of a power vacuum with no Tibetan leader with the authority to negotiate a settlement. The current Dalai Lama's authority in Tibet was illustrated earlier this year after he called on Tibetans to stop wearing traditional tigerskin robes in the interests of conservation. There were remarkable scenes in Tibet as people came on to the streets to burn tiger skins.

In Dharamsala, Tibetan exiles reacted sceptically to the news. "The Chinese are lying. Nobody believes the Chinese," said Tenzing Thachu, who fled Tibet in 1989. "It's great if the Dalai Lama gets to go to China, but the Chinese will never give freedom to the Tibetans," said Jhamla Lotu, who fled here with the Dalai Lama in 1957.

The small Indian hill town, and the neighbouring village of McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lives, are places of sorrow for thousands of Tibetans.

Today India is home to more than 80,000 Tibetan refugees, and more than half were born outside Tibet. Tawang has never set foot in Tibet. But he says if the opportunity came, he would return there without hesitating. " Everybody wants to go," he said. "If you say you're a Tibetan you should live in a country called Tibet."

But some have given up waiting. Tashi Tsering fled here in 1959 with the Dalai Lama. He walked for 16 days through the high passes in the Himalayas. "I am 82," he said. "I am too old to go back to Tibet now. I wish I could go back but I can't, I will not live to see us return. I miss Tibet. I love Tibet."