The group includes two special envoys of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan officials said, and carries with it the personal endorsement of the Tibetan spiritual leader, who is publicly reviled by Beijing.
"His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very pleased that the team is able to make such a visit," said a statement from the Dalai Lama's office in the Indian hillside town of Dharamsala. Officials in Dharamsala refused to comment on the trip but it has raised hopes that deeply hostile relations between exiled Tibetans and the Chinese government could improve.
The US government has already welcomed the visit by the group, which includes Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, special envoy of the Dalai Lama in the United States, and his envoy in Europe, Kelsang Gyaltsen. "We do see the trip of Lodi Gyari to Beijing and then to Lhasa as a positive development," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We would hope that it would lead to progress on dialogue as well as on some of these other issues as well."
However China on Tuesday played down the significance of the "private" visit and renewed its criticism of the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile since a failed uprising in 1959. "There were some Tibetan expatriates allowed to come back to China in a private capacity," foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan told reporters. "We welcome them back to China to see for themselves the development of Tibet and other Tibetan autonomous areas of China," he said.
The Tibetan group would mainly visit relatives in Tibet, he said, while saying they would "have a chance to meet with people at all levels and exchange views with them". But a visit by the Dalai Lama was not in the cards, Kong suggested. "China believes that in recent years, with the support of anti-China forces internationally, the Dalai Lama has engaged in activities aimed at splitting China," he said.
To bring about better relations, the Dalai Lama must cease these activities, recognise Tibet and Taiwan as part of China, and acknowledge Beijing as the sole legitimate government representing all of China, he said. "On that basis, China can have consultations with the Dalai Lama on his personal future," Kong said.
The Dalai Lama has appeared to agree to these concessions in the past but Beijing accuses him of being "insincere".
China, which has ruled Tibet since 1951, has been accused of trying to wipe out its Buddhist-based culture through political repression and a flood of ethnic Chinese immigration. Formal contact between the Dalai Lama and Beijing, through the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, was cut in 1993, although informal contact has been maintained. The US has repeatedly urged Beijing to hold talks with either the Dalai Lama or his representatives.
The elder brother of the Dalai Lama, Gyalo Thondup, an emissary and one of the channels for communications with Beijing, expressed a similar wish four weeks ago after returning from a month-long visit to Tibet. Thondup called in an interview for a face-to-face meeting between the Dalai Lama and Chinese President Jiang Zemin.