Obama's Delayed Dalai Lama Meeting Spurs Criticism

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The Dalai Lama has been in Washington this week. The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader went ahead with this visit, even though his meeting with the White House was postponed until later this year — after President Obama visits China. China strongly disapproves of his meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the president has been criticized for kowtowing to the Chinese.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Dalai Lama has been in Washington this week. He's given out human rights awards and received them. He met with lawmakers, but not with President Obama. Tibet's spiritual leader came ahead to Washington even though the White House put off its meeting with him. That won't happen until later this year, after the president visits China. The Chinese government does not want any president to meet with a man they consider an opposition leader. So, now the president faces criticism that he is giving in to the Chinese.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: In his public appearances, the Dalai Lama has avoided talking about the lack of a White House meeting on his schedule. But a former U.S. ambassador to China, Winston Lord, did allude to that during an award ceremony yesterday.

Mr. WINSTON LORD (Former U.S. Ambassador to China): For decades, the Chinese government has sought to keep the world and its own people in the dark about Tibet. The more the Dalai Lama offers a middle way of peace and reconciliation, the more Beijing has vilified him and successfully bullied other governments, including, I'm distressed to say, the United States government.

KELEMEN: Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of trying to split Tibet from China, though the Dalai Lama spoke yesterday about unity and equal rights for minorities in China.

DALAI LAMA (Spiritual Leader, Tibet): I always love the (unintelligible) unit on the basis of equality.

KELEMEN: His envoy here in Washington, Lodi Gyari, says the Dalai Lama agreed with the White House to put off a meeting until after the president goes to China.

Mr. LODI GYARI (Special Envoy to the Dalai Lama): We would like the United States, especially, you know, the new president, young president, to be able to have a cooperative relationship with China. And that's one reason that His Holiness wants to be of help in that regard.

KELEMEN: After the White House worked to convince the Dalai Lama to delay the meeting, President Obama sent one of its closest advisors, Valerie Jarrett, to see the Tibetan spiritual leader in India where he lives in exile. Lodi Gyari says that visit showed that the administration is committed to the issues, just trying a different approach.

Mr. GYARI: At this case, you know, I am not concerned that we will fall between the cracks.

KELEMEN: This week, in explaining the delay in meeting the Dalai Lama, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Tibetans understand that they can benefit from a stronger U.S.-China relationship.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Spokesman, White House): Our relationship with China, having a strong relationship and a good dialogue with them allows us to talk to them about the cares and concerns of the Tibetan people.

KELEMEN: But activists wonder how forcefully the administration really pursues these issues, and often point to comments that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made earlier this year on her way to Beijing. She said that she'd press human rights but wouldn't let that interfere with other priorities, such as dealing with the global financial crisis. And she gave a candid view of how such conversations tend to unfold.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): We're going to press them, you know, to reconsider their position about Tibet and religious and cultural freedom, and autonomy for the Tibetans, and, you know, some kind of recognition or acknowledgment of the Dalai Lama. And we know what they're going to say, because I've had those conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders.

KELEMEN: Her frank assessment aside, the secretary does now have a point person on Tibet - Under Secretary of State Maria Otero, who met with the Dalai Lama this week. According to a spokesman, Otero made clear that the U.S. is committed to encouraging the Chinese government to engage in a substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama's representatives.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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