For the first time since the protests across Tibet began in March, 2008, Chinese authorities will allow United States Congress personnel into Tibet, following previously rejected requests by Members of Congress and their staffs. At least 10 Congressional staffers depart for travel in China and Tibet this week.

As typical of such visits to Tibet, the itinerary will likely be tightly scripted with scant if any opportunity for independent inquiry. Several European government officials and foreign journalists have been allowed on tightly controlled visits to Tibet, almost exclusively to Lhasa, since the protests began in March 2008.

Todd Stein, Director of Government Relations at the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “The U.S. Congress has a demonstrated interest and remains very engaged in Tibetan issues. What these staffers will be given permission to see and do will be another indication of how the Chinese government wants the international community to interpret the situation in Tibet. To date, Chinese authorities have explained away tension and unrest across Tibet as isolated incidents resulting from outside interference. We hope the staffers will see enough to make their own judgments about the underlying causes and the impact of Chinese policies on the Tibetan people and their prospects for the future.”

“These staffers are well-briefed and aware of their possible exposure to Chinese government machinations during the visits, including being used for propaganda purposes. Discussions among Members of Congress, staff and Chinese officials are often parsed by the Chinese official media to suggest, for example, that any endorsement of economic progress in Tibet is a departure from concerns about the impact of Chinese encroachment on the Tibetan identity and the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama’s efforts for the implementation of genuine autonomy for Tibetans.”

The International community continues to press Chinese authorities for full access to Tibet for diplomats, foreign journalists and human rights rapporteurs. These Congressional staff visits could signal a new Chinese strategy of allowing “opaque access” in order to deflect such pressure, an approach that may have been previewed during the July riots in Xinjiang when foreign journalists were allowed to see the sites of the riots but were not permitted to pursue independent investigations.