Washington, 5 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Outrage in the U.S. Congress at Chinese oppression in Tibet has prompted the State Department to create a special coordinator for Tibetan affairs, a step that raises the stakes for all sides.
Prompted both by reports of Beijing's repression in Tibet and by the actions of various groups concerned about human rights there, the Congress took up legislation last month that would have directed the American government to appoint a special envoy for Tibet.
Seeking to head off a measure certain to infuriate Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last Wednesday sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee promising to appoint a special coordinator for Tibetan affairs.
Arguing that the establishment of this new post made the creation of a "special envoy" unnecessary, Albright said the new coordinator will seek to promote a substantive dialogue between Beijing and the exiled Dalai Lama.
In addition, the coordinator will, in Albright's words, "seek to protect the unique religious, cultural and linguistic heritage of Tibet."
But the U.S. Secretary of State was explicit that neither these contacts nor these goals "constitute any form of diplomatic recognition of a Tibetan government in exile or promote the independence or secession of Tibet."
All of this is certainly true, but the establishment of an office at the U.S. State Department will inevitably give new focus to American anger at Chinese behaviour and encouragement to the people of Tibet.
This office will also have the effect of focusing attention on something many in the West have long ignored: China has a nationality problem different in degree but not in kind from the one that tore the Soviet Union apart.
While the Han Chinese constitute some 95 percent of the population, the non-Hans -- including the Tibetans, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, and other groups -- occupy an enormous fraction of China's territory and have been subject to repression from the central authorities.
Moreover and despite earlier Western expectations to the contrary, Chinese repression of its non-Han population has increased even as Beijing has sought to promote economic reforms elsewhere in the country.
In the last month alone, Chinese officials have stepped up their repressions in three major non-Han areas. In Inner Mongolia, draconian Chinese actions have prompted Mongols in Ulan-Bator to protest in front of Beijing's embassy.
In Xinjiang, the chairman of the local Communist Party Standing Committee threatened last Wednesday to wipe out all Muslim separatists there.
Amudun Niyaz said that "only if we wipe out these 'killer bugs' can we have stability and prosperity." His words follow on a report that Beijing has sent 17,000 officials into villages there in an attempt to quell a mounting tide of ethnic assertiveness.
And in Tibet, the London-based Tibet Information Network reported on Friday, Chinese officials are seeking to force monks and nuns to denounce the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual head of their nation.
The Chinese authorities reportedly have inserted special "re-education teams" into all Tibetan monasteries and have demanded that the monks and nuns declare that the Dalai Lama is "the head of the serpent"
These repressive measures have already had an impact in the West. A boycott by pro-Tibetan groups appears to have prompted the Holiday Inn hotel chain to announce on Friday that it will no longer run the only luxury hotel in Tibet.
The release of two Hollywood films later this year about China's brutal occupation of peaceful Tibet in 1951 will only add to such pressures.
To the extent that the new U.S. Coordinator on Tibetan Affairs provides not only a focus but also a legitimation of Western concerns about Chinese abuses, China's "nationality problem" will thus become more serious.
If this Western pressure leads China to moderate its behaviour, then Beijing may be able to work out an improved relationship with the non-Han groups living under its control.
But if China decides to step up its crackdown against ethnic assertiveness, Beijing is likely to find itself more isolated on a variety of fronts, now that the United States has signalled how seriously it takes the nationality problem in China.