By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader who holds rock-star status in the United States, launched his latest trip to Washington yesterday by dismissing China's outrage over his visit and having what he described as a warm meeting with the president and first lady.
The 72-year-old monk, who is to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress's top honor, is making his highest-profile visit ever to Washington. Along with the White House session, he is mixing in State Department policy briefings, a speech on the West Lawn of the Capitol, a gala hosted by actor Richard Gere and a tour of a homeless shelter in Northwest Washington.
Today's ceremony, which President Bush is to attend, will mark the first time a sitting president has appeared in public with the Dalai Lama, who is considered the spiritual leader of 6 million Tibetans and a cultural icon who has become a global symbol of peace. He is being honored for his years of struggle against Chinese rule.
But China has warned that the five-day visit could chill U.S.-Chinese relations.
"We are furious," Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party secretary for Tibet, told reporters in Beijing, where he was attending the party's 17th National Congress.
China's strong protest underlined its determination to prevent the Dalai Lama from winning international support for autonomy for Tibet, a mountainous region that has been under Chinese control for more than half a century.
Beijing has ruled Tibet since 1951, when troops from the newly formed Communist government moved in and ended a period of self-rule that had flourished while the rest of China was in turmoil. The Dalai Lama, a temporal as well as spiritual leader, led resistance to the imposition of Chinese authority, with assistance from the CIA, until he was forced to flee over the Himalayas to India in 1959.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China had "solemnly demanded" that the Bush administration cancel the honors being arranged in Washington.
But yesterday, the Dalai Lama dismissed the Chinese government's anger with a laugh and a wave of his hand outside the Park Hyatt hotel in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington. "That always happens," he said.
The White House, too, has brushed aside China's warning and vigorously defended the president's meeting with the Dalai Lama.
The Bushes talked with him for about 40 minutes in the Yellow Oval Room yesterday, the fourth time the president and the Dalai Lama have met privately. But they did not appear before cameras, and the White House decided against releasing a photo of the session in deference to Chinese sensibilities.
"We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel we are poking a stick in their eye," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
The Dalai Lama described the meeting as a get-together between close friends -- "like [a] reunion of one family."
"Since we knew each other, we developed some kind of . . . very close friendship," he added.
In addition to briefing the president on the situation in Tibet, the Dalai Lama said he also expressed his appreciation to Laura Bush, who has launched a campaign to rally world pressure against the military government of Burma. It is engaged in a violent crackdown against dissidents, including thousands of barefoot Buddhist monks.
Expressing his solidarity with the monks, the Dalai Lama tugged at his maroon robes and ran his hand across his shaved head, noting that Burmese monks appear quite similar to Tibetan ones.
The images of Burmese troops beating monks, he said, reflects a "very similar" situation in Tibet, where monks have suffered at the hands of Chinese troops.
Despite the stiff language used by Chinese officials, however, the recognition accorded the Dalai Lama was not expected to affect long-term U.S.-China relations. President Hu Jintao, who is about to be acclaimed for a second five-year term at the party congress, has made good ties to the United States the mainstay of his foreign policy.
At the same time, though, China pulled out of a six-nation meeting scheduled for today to plot strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear program. Liu Jianchao, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that China's decision was for "technical reasons" and that its stand on Iran remained the same, but the message seemed clear.
Similarly, Chinese envoys declined to attend a human rights dialogue sponsored by Germany after the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, met with the touring Dalai Lama.
Bush first informed Hu about the Dalai Lama ceremony two months ago during a meeting at an Asian summit in Australia and understands that it will aggravate Beijing, Perino said. But she said that he believes the relationship is strong enough to get past the issue and that he admires the Dalai Lama.
"He is going to be proud" to attend the ceremony, Perino said of Bush. "He believes the Dalai Lama is a strong spiritual leader."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.