The U.S. State Department has announced that the next round of the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue will be held on May 13-14, in Washington, DC. It is the first such meeting under the Obama Administration; the last human rights dialogue was in May 2008, and before that in 2002.

“The Obama Administration has made clear its desire for creative approaches that get results, to get past the habitual logjams in bilateral relations,” said Todd Stein, Director of Government Relations at the International Campaign for Tibet. “Amidst the recent ‘warming’ in U.S.-China relations and the images of Tibetan-Chinese partnership in response to the Yushu earthquake, we hope that new approach in the human rights dialogue will bear fruit for Tibetans experiencing political incarceration and repression.”

The dialogue provides a forum for direct discussion on human rights matters between U.S. and Chinese officials. Critics contend that the dialogue, as currently constructed, has served to compartmentalize human rights issues away from other areas of the bilateral relationship, and that it resulted in little but intransigence from the Chinese side.

“The State Department’s prioritization of religious freedom within the dialogue is relevant and timely for Tibetans,” said Todd Stein. “For one, the tragedy of the earthquake in the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, including the contribution of monks and the appearance of prohibited images of the Dalai Lama during relief efforts, has heightened focus on the spiritual needs of the affected Tibetan population in context of Chinese government restrictions. Second, the dialogue will occur just after Tibetans mark the 21 birthday of the disappeared 11 Panchen Lama, on April 25.”

The welfare and whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the young boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995 — following the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989 — remains a serious point of contention between Tibetans and the Chinese authorities. Upon being recognized at the age of six by the Dalai Lama in India, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima almost immediately disappeared into Chinese custody and was subsequently regarded as the world’s youngest political prisoner. No verifiable information about him has been released by the Chinese authorities since, who insisted — when he was still under 18 and a minor under international law — that his family did not want to be disturbed, and that he was growing up “as a normal Chinese schoolboy.”

For Tibetans, the disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima also represented the interference of the Chinese government in the deeply spiritual process of reincarnation within Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese authorities installed their own choice of Panchen Lama instead of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in 1995, but for the vast majority of Tibetans this “Chinese Panchen” lacks any legitimacy or credibility. There is even sympathy among some Tibetans for the plight of Gyaltsen Norbu, the young Tibetan man installed as the “Chinese Panchen,” who is seen as having to be a “cheerleader” for the Chinese authorities’ attempts to control Tibetan Buddhism in particular, and Tibet in general.

The U.S. State Department has long tracked the case of the Panchen Lama and reported on his disappearance and the facts that the Chinese government has forced Tibetans to express allegiance to the government-appointed person and that Tibetans generally recognize the disappeared Panchen Lama. The Department’s most recent reports on human rights and religious freedom found “severe repression of speech, religion, association and movement” of Tibetans and that “the level of religious repression in the TAR and other Tibetan areas remained high.”