Father of China’s next leader was close to Dalai Lama

For decades, Beijing has maintained that the Dalai Lama is a separatist, but Tibet's exiled spiritual leader once had a special relationship with the father of Xi Jinping, the man in line to become China's next president.

Few people know what Xi thinks of Tibet or the Dalai Lama. But his late father, Xi Zhongxun, a former vice-premier, had a close bond with the Tibetan leader who once gave the elder Xi an expensive watch in the 1950s, a gift that the senior party official was still wearing decades later.

The Dalai Lama, 77, recalls the elder Xi as "very friendly, comparatively more open-minded, very nice". "We Tibetans, we get these different varieties of watch easily from India. So we take advantage of that, and brought some watches to some people when we feel some sort of close feeling, as a gift like that," the Dalai Lama said.

The Dalai Lama gave the watch to the elder Xi in 1954 during a visit to Beijing. Xi was one of the officials who spent time with the young Dalai Lama in the capital where he spent five to six months studying Chinese and Marxism.

The Dalai Lama fled to India five years later, but as late as 1979, Xi senior was still wearing the watch.

Xi senior was a dove in the party, championing the rights of Tibetans and Uighurs. He also opposed the crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen student protests. Xi senior died in 2002.

The Dalai Lama has never met Xi junior but his fondness for the father is, for some, a sign that China's next leader may adopt a more reformist approach to Tibet.

Asked if Xi might take a different tack on Tibet, a retired official who used to work in Tibet said: "There has to be new thinking ... He is surely aware of the problems." "Hu will not be an obstacle to reconciliation moves," a second source with leadership ties said.

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