Thaw shifts focus to SAR model for Tibet
Even if it was a coincidence that the Dalai Lama's brother chose July 1 to start a tour of China - which included his first visit to Tibet in 50 years - it might provide some portent for the disputed land's future.
Gyalo Thondup's trip began on the fifth anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty under "one country, two systems".
The concept, attributed to late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, was first put to the test in 1997 with the return of Hong Kong to China.
It is now being viewed as a possible solution to the thorny question of Tibet, which has been under Beijing's rule since 1951 but is still claimed by a government-in-exile headed by the Dalai Lama.
While it is not known whether the prospect of Tibet becoming China's third SAR - after Hong Kong and Macau - was raised during recent visits by senior representatives of the exiled government, the Dalai Lama has indicated he would be prepared to accept the region being administered under the "one country, two systems" model.
Hopes for new talks between the religious leader and Beijing after a nine-year hiatus have been raised by the July visit of Mr Gyalo Thondup, 73, to Beijing and Tibet.
They were further bolstered last month when the Dalai Lama's special envoy to the United States, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, also visited Tibet and met central government officials.
Perhaps one sign the system has been working in Hong Kong comes from Mr Gyalo Thondup, who has acted for years as an intermediary between his brother and Beijing, spending time living and working in the SAR since 1997.
Mr Gyalo Thondup said he had spent time in Hong Kong but was vague when asked for details. Another sibling of the Dalai Lama also is understood to live in Hong Kong.
Mr Gyalo Thondup said "some friends" had helped him arrange work visas over the years for Hong Kong "I do go to Hong Kong very often . . . I have been going to Hong Kong for many years," he said, adding he visited three or four times a year.
However, Mr Gyalo Thondup said he did not want to comment on whether the system used in Hong Kong could be applied to Tibet, adding: "I don't have a very good knowledge of Hong Kong".
A key change in the political landscape since negotiations between the Dalai Lama and Beijing broke down in 1993 has been the implementation of the SARs, which mainland leaders consider a success.
Senior figures from the exiled government based in Dharamsala, northern India, told the Sunday Morning Post a deal could now be reached with China as long as it guaranteed "genuine autonomy" for Tibetans.
The "one country, two systems" model requires Chinese sovereignty to be applied to a territory, with foreign affairs and defence issues handled by the central government while domestic matters are left to a local administration. It has been proposed by Beijing as a possible model for Taiwan.
"What we are urging the Chinese government is that in return for genuine autonomy for the whole of Tibet, we are willing to concede that Tibet [is part of China]," said Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the government-in-exile.
A stumbling point, though, is the Dalai Lama's demand that the territory not be just the present Tibet Autonomous Region but also include areas of Sichuan, Gansu, Yunnan and Xinjiang provinces which he considers part of traditional Tibet.
This is likely to be rejected by Beijing, given that these additional areas come under the administration of other provinces. A greater Tibet could cover a quarter of China's territory, according to some estimates.
Officials from the exiled Tibetan government say the 17-point agreement drawn up by the central government in 1951 on "measures for the peaceful liberation of Tibet" following a PLA invasion - described by Beijing as the "liberation" of Tibet - was a model for "one country, two systems".
"The central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet," it said. "The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama."
The document handed control of defence and foreign affairs to Beijing. However, when the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 he accused China of implementing a reign of terror, denounced the document and claimed Tibetan officials had been forced to sign it.
The overtures involving the possibility of Tibet being run along the same lines as Hong Kong were made as the Tibetan government-in-exile has been seeking to play up the significance of the recent trips.
Mr Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari said the religious leader had urged his followers to take full advantage of the opening to push for a return to talks.
Other officials have raised hopes that Beijing and exiled officials could begin talks by July next year.
There have been further signs of a softening by both sides. Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the government-in-exile, has called on "all Tibetans and friends of Tibet" to refrain from the usual protests that greet Chinese leaders travelling abroad when President Jiang Zemin visits the US and Mexico this month.
Also, high-profile Tibetan political prisoners have been released.
Asked about the possibility of Tibet being ruled as a Chinese SAR, Mr Thubten Samphel said: "We feel that anything which is imaginative or creative and which could lessen the suffering of the Tibetan people is something that should be discussed".
This is not the first time the possibility of Tibet joining the ranks of China's SARs has been raised. When the Dalai Lama was asked by a journalist in 1997 whether the "one country, two systems" concept could apply, he said: "Oh yes. Certainly, certainly."
The spiritual leader added that the 17-point agreement of 1951 contained "the spirit" of the concept, even though it was not mentioned by the name it later become known as, but it had failed in Tibet.
He then advocated the Chinese government take responsibility for military and foreign affairs while other issues such as "education, the economy and promotion of spirituality or cultural heritage" would be handled by a local government.
Beijing has not yet provided any indication that the recent trips hold any greater significance.
Although it has softened the tone of its criticism of the Dalai Lama, there have been no signs of backing away from insisting he abandon the idea of forming an enlarged Tibet and that he acknowledge Tibet and Taiwan are part of China as preconditions for talks.
Barry Sautman, an associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a leading authority on Tibet, said Beijing had previously rejected suggestions the "one country, two systems" concept could be applied to Tibet.
"The basic distinction they have made in the past was that Tibet was liberated and became part of the socialist system and that Hong Kong was not," he said.
Central authorities also would not want a system similar to Hong Kong's operating in Tibet which tolerated more political activities.
Professor Sautman said: "That would mean a political system with parties which Beijing considers subversive. In Tibet's case there are people who want independence."
So far, there is little indication that the Dalai Lama can yet return after his decades of exile.