Chinese authorities have announced that two provinces with ethnic Tibetan populations will be able to openly venerate the Dalai Lama for religious purposes, in what seems to be a step toward the central government relaxing its attitude on the exiled spiritual leader. Buddhists in China’s Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, located immediately to the east of Tibet, will be able to openly display portraits of the leader, an act previously forbidden.

The experimental policy change will only, however, allow reverence of the Dalai Lama for religious purposes, not as a “political” figure, Radio Free Asia is reporting. The 77-year-old Dalai Lama fled to India after an attempted uprising in 1959 against China’s occupation of Tibet. Beijing has become cautious of the Dalai Lama because it believes he is responsible for fueling “dangerous separatist ideals" among his followers, most of whom want Tibet to break away from China and its government. “An announcement has been made stating that photos of the Dalai Lama may be displayed, and that the Dalai Lama should not be criticized by name,” a resident of the area told RFA’s Tibetan Service.

Sources from Free Tibet have also confirmed that monks in Gaden (sometimes known as Gendun) monastery in Lhasa have also been informed that they are legally permitted to display pictures of the spiritual leader. The ban on the image was initially introduced in 1996 as part of a crackdown on religious freedom in the area. Free Tibet, a non-profit Tibetan advocacy group, has not been able to see physical evidence or spoken to officials that are willing to confirm the policy changes on the record, leaving the organization’s director, Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, skeptical that true change was underway.

“Tibetans’ reverence for and loyalty to the Dalai Lama has almost no equal among the world’s communities and if this policy is extended beyond this individual monastery, as other reports suggest, it will be very significant to the Tibetan people,” Byrne-Rosengren said in a statement. “However, these reports remain unconfirmed and, in those circumstances, it would be unwise to speculate on their implications regarding China’s policies in Tibet. A local change in policy can easily be reversed,” she added.

However, in related news, Human Rights Watch is saying that over two million Tibetans have been resettled by China’s government, being forced into what the group is calling “socialist villages,” countering the belief that China had the intention of relaxing its grip on Tibetan politics. 

Human Rights Watch used comparison images from Google Earth to illustrate what it says is the mass destruction of previously existing houses and the new development of uniform rows of villages.  According to the organization, the new villages are under extremely heavy surveillance from officials and are perhaps stricter than ever. “The government has started to dispatch new teams of Communist Party officials to each single village of the Tibet Autonomous Region," Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, said to the BBC. “The new personnel stationed in these villages have been instructed to eat, live and work with the villagers and that includes monitoring their political opinions and identifying whose loyalty to the Party or the government is questionable.”