Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to have relaxed the hard-line policies of his two predecessors towards Tibet and the Falungong movement. There have been some encouraging signs.
On June 27, the Free Tibet group reported that Chinese officials have lifted a 1996 ban on the display of the Dalai Lama's photos at Ganden Monastery near Tibet's capital Lhasa. China has long accused the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader of fomenting separatism in the western region.
Last month, a report in the Falungong newspaper Epoch Times noted that the number of Falungong practitioners imprisoned or sent to labour camps in the past few months has fallen sharply while many already incarcerated have been released. The newspaper, citing data from minghui.org which tracks and reports on the persecution of Falungong members, said the total number of new arrests this year up to early September was 1,727, compared with an average of 6,000 annually in the past five years. Also, at least five detention centres have released a huge number of Falungong members this year.
The softening of an erstwhile hard line cannot be coincidental and most likely signals Mr Xi's desire to end the highly repressive religious policies of his predecessor Hu Jintao and before Mr Hu, Mr Jiang Zemin.
Mr Xi's late father Xi Zhongxun, a former vice-premier, is remembered as being sympathetic towards Tibet and had also known the Dalai Lama.
The lifting of the photo ban in Tibet, though fiercely denied by the local authorities, came just days after Ms Jin Wei, director of Ethnic and Religious Studies at the Communist Party's Central Party School, proposed an entirely new approach to resolving the Tibetan issue.
In her interview with the Hong Kong-based Asiaweek on June 9, Ms Jin put the blame squarely on "past Tibetan party leaders" whose tough policies have led to 119 cases of self-immolation by Tibetan monks since 2011. "The policies of several previous Tibet party leaders had gone wrong, sowing the seeds of present-day ethnic grievances," she said.
One of the leaders Ms Jin was alluding to is Mr Hu, who adopted tough policies during his tenure as Tibet party secretary. In early 1989, he ordered a bloody crackdown on rioters in Lhasa. His handling of the unrest earned him praise from then patriarch Deng Xiaoping who later anointed him as Mr Jiang's successor.