US ambassador in China makes rare visit to Tibet

FILE - In this Sept. 30, 2017, file photo, U.S. Ambassador Terry Edward Branstad, left, shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The U.S. ambassador to China is making a rare visit to Tibet to meet local officials and raise concerns about restrictions on Buddhist practices and the preservation of the Himalayan region's unique culture and language. (Lintao Zhang/Pool Photo via AP, File)

BEIJING — The U.S. ambassador to China is making a rare visit to Tibet to meet local officials and raise concerns about restrictions on Buddhist practices and the preservation of the Himalayan region's unique culture and language.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Terry Branstad is visiting the Tibetan Autonomous Region and neighboring Qinghai province from Sunday through Saturday. Qinghai is a traditionally Tibetan region also known as Amdo and the birthplace of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader.

Branstad's visit will include official meetings along with visits to religious and cultural heritage sites, schools, and "other places of interest," the embassy said in a statement.

The embassy called the visit "a chance for the ambassador to engage with local leaders to raise longstanding concerns." It said Branstad would also "learn first-hand about the region's unique cultural, religious, and ecological significance."

China tightly restricts access to Tibet by foreigners, especially journalists and diplomats. In response to the lack of access, the U.S. Congress last year passed the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which denies entry to the United States for anyone "substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas."

China says Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say they were effectively an independent nation for most of that time. Beijing's control was most recently asserted when the Communist Party's military wing, the People's Liberation Army, invaded the region in 1950.

In recent years there has been a significant tightening of control over Tibetan Buddhism, use of the Tibetan language and traditional culture. Following anti-government protests in 2008, Beijing imposed a policy of "grid policing" that significantly reduces travel and social life, methods subsequently imposed in the traditionally Muslim neighboring region of Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of residents have been confined to detention centers.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China welcomed Branstad to witness the "earth-shaking changes in the people's production and life since Tibet's peaceful liberation more than 60 years ago."

"I hope that this visit to Tibet can help Ambassador Branstad make a conclusion without prejudice in the spirit of respecting the facts ... instead of being confused and disturbed by some long-standing hearsay and defamatory speeches," Lu said.

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