Bush Administration Presses Beijing, Quietly, To Ease Up On Tibet Protesters

Responding to complaints by human-rights and other activists that the Bush administration has overly muted its criticism of China for its crackdown on protesters in Tibet, a State Department official defends the U.S. approach as "active" and clear in expressing opposition to any harsh repressive measures in the troubled, nominally autonomous region. "We've been fairly active on this," says the official. "The Chinese don't think we're soft-pedaling. They don't like some of the things we've said."

The official cites personal phone calls by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to leaders in Beijing urging restraint, respect for human rights, and a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader and political leader of the Tibetans in exile. The official stresses that the U.S. opposes violence from any quarter--protesters or state security forces.

The official says that the Tibet violence has occasioned the sharpening of the U.S. message that China needs to have a "more sustainable" Tibet policy--meaning reaching out to local Tibetans and to the Dalai Lama in a real political dialogue. The United States does not question Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and even the Dalai Lama insists he is seeking greater autonomy and respect for cultural mores for Tibet within China. "We've been consistent on Tibet," says the official.

The official also notes rising concern about the Tibet violence among some corporate sponsors of the August Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, a historic showcasing of modern China on the world stage. "I think they're probably letting the Chinese know" of their concern to avoid violence, says the official. "I think the Chinese are getting the message."

The official suggests that the apparent, though unconfirmed, reduction in violence in Tibet in recent days may be an indication of the message being received. The U.S. embassy in Beijing, at the same time, is continuing to seek independent access to Tibet to assess the situation firsthand.

Human-rights activists have been using the upcoming games as an opportunity to bring international pressure on the Chinese leadership over its support for the Sudan government, which has fueled the violence and atrocities in the Darfur region, and over its pre-Olympics crackdown on Chinese dissidents and human-rights crusaders.

And while the administration says it is opposing any boycott of any part of the Olympics, it is now pointing to the games as a spur to China to moderate its conduct and avoid past repressive tendencies. "The Chinese took a big obligation when they took on the Olympics. People expect them to live up to a certain level [of conduct]."

By Thomas Omestad