By Debbi Wilgoren, Jacqueline L. Salmon and Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 17, 2007 2:21 PM
President Bush said this morning that he does not expect his open embrace of the Dalai Lama to imperil relations between the United States and China, despite strong protests from Chinese leaders against the honors being bestowed upon the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader.
"I admire the Dalai Lama a lot," Bush said in a morning news conference. "I support religious freedom, he supports religious freedom. . . . I've consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their interest."
The 72-year-old monk, who holds rock-star status in the United States, arrived in Washington yesterday and had a private meeting with the president and first lady, which he described to reporters afterward as "warm" and like a "reunion."
Later in the day, he received the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress's top civilian honor. Bush attended the ceremony and offered remarks, marking the first time a sitting president has appeared in public with the man who has become a cultural icon and a global symbol of peace.
The Dalai Lama is being honored for his years of struggle against Chinese rule over Tibet, a mountainous region China has controlled for more than half a century. He is considered the spiritual leader of 6 million Tibetans.
In addition to visiting the White House and Congress, he will give a speech this afternoon on the West Lawn of the Capitol, attend State Department briefings and a gala hosted by actor Richard Gere and tour a homeless shelter in Northwest Washington.
Bush said he has told Chinese President Hu Jintao he planned to attend the medal ceremony "because I want to honor this man. . . . If they were to sit down with the Dalai Lama, they would find him to be a man of peace and reconciliation."
In addition, Bush said, "I like going to the gold medal ceremonies. I think it's a good thing for the president to do, to recognize those who Congress has honored."
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 yesterday 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. 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 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 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, reflect a "very similar" situation in Tibet, where monks have suffered at the hands of Chinese troops.
Bush's statement that the recognition accorded the Dalai Lama will not affect relations with China in the long term seems to reflect the priority China has placed on maintaining good ties in recent years. Hu, who is about to be acclaimed for a second five-year term at the party congress, has made strong U.S.-China relations 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.
Cody reported from Beijing. Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.