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May 26, 2017

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US envoy urges Tibet reforms after rare trip

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. ambassador to China urged Beijing Monday to re-examine policies toward Tibetans as he acknowledged that he had quietly visited monasteries during a spate of self-immolation protests.

Ambassador Gary Locke, speaking from Beijing to an online forum in the United States, said he stopped at monasteries last month in the flashpoint Aba prefecture to "get an appreciation of Tibetan culture and the way of life."

Aba, an ethnically Tibetan area of Sichuan province, has been a hotbed of protests against Beijing's rule. Some 60 ethnic Tibetans, many of them monks and nuns, have set themselves alight since February 2009 in Sichuan and Tibet.

"We implore the Chinese to really meet with the representatives of the Tibetan people to address and re-examine some of the policies that have led to some of the restrictions and the violence and the self-immolations," Locke said.

"We have very serious concerns about the violence, of the self-immolations, that have occurred over the last several years," he said, calling the incidents "very deplorable."

"Nobody wants that type of action, or of people having to resort to that type of action. Too many deaths," he said. Locke called for China to show respect for Tibetans' religion, culture and language.

The United States has repeatedly urged China to address Tibetan grievances but it is very rare for foreign officials or media to visit Tibetan areas on unsupervised trips.

In previous statements Washington has urged China's leaders to resume dialogue with Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959 and enjoys strong public support in the United States.

China's foreign ministry Tuesday rejected what it called foreign interference and repeated its claim that the "Dalai group" is responsible for "instigating and masterminding" self-immolations.

"At the same time I want to point out that Tibetan affairs are China's internal affairs," said spokesman Hong Lei. "We oppose any country or any person interfering in China's internal affairs in any form."

The details of Locke's visit emerged as President Barack Obama's administration looks for new ways to promote human rights in China, which regularly lashes out at U.S. condemnation of its record.

Obama has faced election-year criticism from Republican rivals, who have urged him to be more outspoken on Beijing's human rights record and its trade and currency practices.

But U.S. officials cite as a success the quiet diplomacy in May that led China to allow dissident Chen Guangcheng to move to New York.

Locke, who was responding to a question as part of a "China Town Hall" with citizens in 60 cities across the United States, said he visited Aba prefecture after a trip to the major cities in Sichuan, where he promoted U.S. businesses.

Seven self-immolation protests were reported last week alone among Tibetans, many of whom accuse China of suppressing their culture. Few of the Tibetans who have set themselves alight are believed to have survived.

The State Department's annual human rights reports say that China has denied the political and religious rights of Tibetans. China rejects the charges and says it has brought investment and modernization to Tibet.

Locke, the first Chinese-American to serve as U.S. ambassador in Beijing, has often fascinated the Chinese public through his humble demeanor. When he headed to Beijing, a picture went viral that showed the former governor at Seattle's airport paying for his own coffee at Starbucks.

Locke said he found the Chinese to be "so welcoming and engaging" toward him since he took his position.

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