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4 years into crackdown, Tibetans seek signs of hope in next leader

DHARAMSHALA, India -- In their long and fruitless struggle against Chinese rule, Tibetans have often leapt on any reason to stay optimistic — and, for some, a new leader in Beijing offers a fresh glimmer of hope.

The rise of Xi Jinping, who is seen as China's president-in-waiting, has set off a ripple of speculation that he may bring about a change of policy toward Tibet, which has been subject to a military crackdown since 2008.

One is that Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, met and came to know the Dalai Lama in Beijing in the early 1950s, before the Tibetan spiritual leader fled a failed uprising.

Xi senior, a party official at the time, later became a liberal vice premier known to be sympathetic towards minorities, and Tibetan exiles and analysts raise the possibility that such thinking may have passed down a generation.

“His father was familiar with Tibet and had an association with the Dalai Lama,” confirmed Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile in the Indian hilltown of Dharamshala.

“Whether the son can be like the father is still to be seen,” he told AFP. “Tibetans are always hopeful.”

Sangay is this week hosting a special meeting on how to respond to the scores of self-immolation protests against Chinese control, and delegates admit they are monitoring the Chinese transfer of power that is likely to start next month.

Beijing-watchers say that little is known about Xi Jinping's true political leanings, though he has expressed the government's routine disdain for the Dalai Lama and also vowed to “smash” any attempt to destroy stability in Tibet.

“His father did encounter the Dalai Lama when the Dalai Lama visited Beijing for a period in 1954,” said Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“It is possible that Xi Jinping might take more interest in Tibet as a result of his family, but it is a slender reed on which to base your hopes.”

Sarah McDowall, China expert at the IHS research group in London, sounded a similar note of caution over predictions that Xi would listen to Tibetans' calls for autonomy and their complaints of increasingly brutal repression.

“It is really unlikely there will be any softening of policy towards Tibet,” she said.

“The security situation is still volatile after (unrest in) 2008, combined with the self-immolations, which have given renewed incentive to retain a hardline policy.

“It is not going to be the time for any new leader trying to consolidate their power base to be seen as weak on a matter of national integrity.”

The last fatal protests were four weeks ago, and analysts say each self-immolation case worsens a vicious cycle of further clampdowns by Chinese security forces and more anger across the Tibetan-inhabited areas of China.

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