September 24, 2004
It is the third such visit since contact was re-established between the two sides in September 2002.
Western diplomats believe that the resumption of talks is cause for optimism that the Tibetan holy leader could return home. "For the first time you have a Chinese leader who knows Tibet," said one diplomat.
Hu Jintao, who became head of the Chinese Communist Party two years ago, was party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region from 1988 to 1992. His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, retired from his last post on Sunday, leaving Mr Hu in complete control over foreign and domestic policies.
Mr Hu may push a more conciliatory line over Tibet and other issues as part of a broader effort both to normalise China's political system and to improve its international image.
Mary Beth Markey, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: "Considering Beijing's timeline for exhibiting itself as a world leader at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, initial steps must be taken now to reach a solution for Tibet."
The US government has repeatedly called for discussions between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama or his representatives. Progress on Tibet is also necessary if a European Union arms embargo is to be lifted.
The first official EU visit to Tibet since 1998 starts next week. A group of ambassadors will be gathering information on human rights in preparation for a new round of EU-China talks.
The last visit in May 1998 was a disaster for all concerned. Unbeknown to the delegation of EU ambassadors, a protest broke out during their visit to the notorious Drapchi Prison, and a unit of China's People's Armed Police (PAP) were called in to suppress it. Eleven Tibetan prisoners were thought to have died in the weeks following the protests.
All the current political prisoners in Drapchi are still suffering from the tight restrictions placed on them as a consequence of that incident, even if they were not involved in the peaceful protests. Some political prisoners are reportedly still detained in punishment blocks. This time the EU ambassadors will not be going to Drapchi.
At the heart of the negotiations being conducted by Mr Gyari are efforts to find a formula to allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet as a religious leader in return for acknowledging Beijing's sovereignty over the country.
The Tibetans are seeking guarantees that the Dalai Lama would be permitted to live all the year in the Potala Palace and not be kept a virtual prison in Beijing. The Dalai Lama wants to have full control over the publication and editing of all religious texts and undisputed authority to appoint the abbots of monasteries and supervise the choice of the reincarnations of all living Buddhas. The Dalai Lama also wants full freedom to leave the country when he wishes and the right to travel to all regions of China inhabited by Tibetans. The majority of the seven million Tibetans live outside the boundaries of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Officials working in Tibet fear that such is the Tibetans' deep reverence for the Dalai Lama that once he is installed in the Potala, he will inevitably become the source of all authority. Any theoretical separation of church and state will be impossible to maintain and the Chinese Communist Party will lose its influence over the Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama formally abandoned his ambition for full independence at the end of the 1980s and staked out what he calls his "middle way". His envoys had made some progress in the 1980s but both sides were caught out by a series of pro-independence protests in Tibet. The issue became tangled up in the struggle between hardliners and reformers in Beijing.
While in power Mr Jiang took a consistently hard line on both Tibet and Taiwan, partly to bolster his position, especially with the powerful Chinese military. Now that Mr Hu, who is 16 years younger, has replaced Mr Jiang as chairman of the Central Military Commission, he is better placed to stamp his own authority on a more moderate Tibet policy.
If formal talks were to start, discussions might well focus on the 17-point agreement made between the Tibetans and the Chinese Communists after the People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1951. When this agreement was broken by Chairman Mao, who insisted on spreading the Communist Revolution to the Tibetans, they revolted and the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.