DHARMSALA, India — The Dalai Lama said Thursday that informal talks with the Chinese are continuing over his possible return to his homeland of Tibet — if only for a visit — and cautiously praised Chinese President Xi Jinping as a realist.
The Dalai Lama, 79, sat down for an interview in his temple in the north Indian town of Dharmsala before a celebration of the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize, after a month of media speculation of a thaw between the exiled leader and the Chinese government.
The two were communicating “not formally or seriously, but informally,” the religious leader said. “I express this is my desire, and some of my friends, they are also showing their genuine interest or concern.”
The two sides have sparred for years over the future of Tibet. The Dalai Lama argues for autonomy for the Himalayan region he fled in 1959, while the Chinese accuse him of being a separatist. Just this week, another gathering of Nobel winners was canceled in South Africa after that country refused the Dalai Lama a visa, reportedly under pressure from China.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have continued to increase their control over the Tibetan region, with the opening of a new railway line last month that will give greater access to its rich natural resources. Foreign travel is still greatly restricted. And more than 130 people have self-immolated to protest the Dalai Lama’s exile and press for freedom for Tibet since 2009, including two during Xi’s recent visit to New Delhi.
Elsewhere in China, the streets of Hong Kong have been filled in recent days with thousands of pro-democracy protesters.
The Dalai Lama said he had been closely watching the events unfold in that city.
“I’m seriously watching the situation, but it’s very, very complicated and it’s difficult to say why,” he said. “My wish is that the problem be solved peacefully with mutual benefit. That’s the only thing I can do — prayer, hope.”
Despite the recent tensions, speculation about improved relations between China and the Dalai Lama have been fueled by remarks from a Chinese Communist Party deputy secretary who said discussions on the spiritual leader’s return to his homeland were underway. In September, a popular Chinese Web site briefly displayed an article that said that the Dalai Lama might return for a visit to a Buddhist shrine and to meet party leaders.
The Dalai Lama also contributed to the media hubbub, praising Xi as more “realistic” and “open-minded” than his predecessors while Xi was on a high-profile trip to India in September. On Thursday, the Dalai Lama again praised Xi for having “courageously tackled” the problem of government corruption. But he voiced concern over China’s imprisonment of dissidents.
“The thing to say is that he’s approached these problems more realistically” than other leaders in the past, the Dalai Lama said of Xi. The Dalai Lama’s belief that the Chinese leader respects Buddhism gives him hope they could find common ground.
“This is something new for a Communist Party leader to say something about spirituality,” the Dalai Lama noted. “We’ll see. I have some optimistic view. Still too early to say.”
Some Tibet experts have scoffed at reports about an improvement in the relationship between China and the Dalai Lama, noting that China’s strategy has long been to wait until the Dalai Lama dies to resolve the Tibet issue — as well as that of the holy man’s successor. The Dalai Lama has said that his successor should be chosen by the Tibetan people, a desire which, if not honored by the Chinese government, could result in widespread unrest.
The Dalai Lama and Tibet’s government in exile launched a high-profile campaign in June to promote his “Middle Way Approach,” which advocates for greater autonomy for Tibet but not complete independence. But finding complete support in the fractious Tibetan community around the hilly Indian town of Dharmsala has been difficult, according to Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet’s government in exile. Most younger activists from the Tibetan Youth Congress and others continue to call for independence for Tibet.
The Dalai Lama said that informal talks with retired Chinese military officials and business leaders were continuing on his possible return to his home country, where he has not lived since he fled during an anti-Chinese uprising in 1959. He has said he longs to take a pilgrimage to see the Wu Tai Shan, a sacred mountain in China.
“It’s not yet finalized, but the plan is there,” he said. Then he quipped: “As soon as something is finalized, I’ll let you know.”