Following a series of self-immolation protests, the U.S. Ambassador to China is speaking out on Beijing's policies toward Tibetans. In an online Town Hall Meeting with citizens in cities across the United States, Gary Locke also spoke about his trip last month to Tibetan monasteries.
"We implore the Chinese to really meet with the representatives of the Tibetan people to address and re-examine some of the policies that have led to some of the restrictions and the violence and the self-immolations, and we are very concerned with the human rights condition here in China," said Ambassador Locke.
Senior Chinese officials have rejected calls to meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama or with authorities from the Tibetan exile government based in northern India.
During the online discussion, Locke also acknowledged his recent visit to Aba prefecture of China's Sichuan Province, where nearly two-thirds of the Tibetans who have set themselves on fire lived.
Seven Tibetans reportedly self-immolated last week, bringing the total number to nearly 60 since 2009. While U.S. representatives have raised the Tibetan issue with China's government, it is rare for a U.S. ambassador to visit Tibetan areas.
Locke says he traveled to the region to get an appreciation of Tibetan culture and way of life.
"We have very serious concerns about the violence, the self immolations that have occurred over the last several years, very deplorable," said Locke. "Nobody wants that type of action, or people having to resort to that type of action. Too many deaths, too many deaths."
A State Department spokesperson earlier confirmed Locke's trip to the area after a reporter for The New York Times posted a picture of Locke greeting an elderly monk.
The Times says Locke visited two monasteries in Songpan, about 160 km east of the town Aba. While Aba has frequently been closed to travelers since the protests began, Songpan has remained a popular tourist destination.
Uprisings against Chinese rule have swept the Tibetan plateau since 2008 when protests spread from Lhasa to Sichuan and Qinghai. China has responded with a harsh crackdown and heavy security presence.
When asked about Ambassador Locke's call to re-examine Tibetan policies Tuesday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei rejected the comments.
He says what he called a "political scheme" should be condemned in the strongest terms. He says Tibetan affairs are China's internal affairs and China opposes any effort to interfere in internal affairs in any way.
Tibetans have denied the immolations are planned by an outside force and say the protests are a response to repressive policies by the Chinese government that restrict their freedom of religion and human rights.