U.S. Honor for Dalai Lama Angers China

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Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is set to receive the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor on Wednesday. Critical of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government has protested the award. Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers will award their highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, to Tibet's religious leader, the Dalai Lama on Wednesday.

President Bush is due to be there, following a private visit with the religious leader on Tuesday, making it one of the most public meetings between an American president and Tibetan Buddhism's top cleric.

China's government has protested the award. It accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking independence for the Himalayan region that China claims as part of its territory.

The issue of Tibet is springing up at a most inconvenient and unexpected time for China's rulers.

Changing Times

The leaders of the Germany, Canada, Australia, Austria and the United States have either met with the Dalai Lama in recent months or promised to do so. These nations' leaders have previously been very cautious about upsetting Beijing with such visits.

The Dalai Lama's special envoy, Lodi Gyari, says the change is because these leaders represent democratic nations and are accountable to their electorates.

"No respectable leader of the free world is going to shy away from his holiness," Gyari says. "Each one of them considers that it is a great honor to have a friendship with his holiness, and this is also what the public wants."

In the past, some leaders would not to meet the Dalai Lama "publicly." President Bill Clinton, for example, would pretend to drop by when the Dalai Lama just happened to be in Vice President Al Gore's office.

As a result, China would then pretend not to retaliate — it would cancel meetings without saying why it was doing so. This time, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao says Washington was well aware of China's position.

"China has made solemn representations to the U.S. and [it has] clearly stated that the Chinese government opposes the Congress giving the Dalai its so-called Medal of Honor," Liu says. "We resolutely oppose any person in any country using the Dalai issue to interfere in China's internal affairs."

The Dalai Lama has also scored diplomatic points by speaking out forcefully on the recent crackdown against protesting monks in Myanmar. The image of monks leading large protests is not one that Beijing would like Tibetans to see.

Bad Timing for China

All these diplomatic headaches come at a bad time for China, as it orchestrates a leadership reshuffle at its 17th Communist Party Congress in Beijing.

The country also is dealing with an unexpected flare-up of unrest in Eastern Tibet, which has traditionally been more politically relaxed than the rest of the region.

The problems began in August at the Litang Horse Festival. Every year, Eastern Tibet's Khampa horsemen pitch tents on the plains outside the town of Litang in the Western Sichuan province.

This year at the week-long festival, a nomad named Runggye Adak climbed on stage and publicly called for the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet. Police arrested the nomad and troops were quickly brought into quell any protests.

Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy, is a Khampa. He recalls that when Chinese authorities restricted religious freedoms in 1959, the fiercely independent Khampas rose up in rebellion.

"I know myself, as a Tibetan — particularly as someone coming from that part of the world — [that] the religious freedom to the Tibetans is something that is even difficult to explain," Gyari says. "It is, for them, more precious than life."

Wavering Confidence in Beijing

Analysts say that the latest unrest comes as a shock to Beijing. The country has become increasingly confident that it has pro-Tibetan independence forces under control — and that younger Tibetans, who have grown up with the Dalai Lama in exile, will feel less loyalty to him.

But that's not how it has worked out, says Robbie Barnett, who runs the Tibetan studies program at Columbia University in New York.

"I think it is a big question for China that there seems to be a continuing inability to gauge how Tibetans think, and how to win them over," Barnett says. "[They need] to get over the idea that you can buy people's loyalty by improving the economy and improving cities and so on. It just isn't working out for them."

A new report suggests that security tensions involving the Dalai Lama have recently evolved into ethnic tensions between Tibetans and the Han Chinese.

An internal Chinese government memo obtained by the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia calls for Communist Party members to watch out for Tibetan traitors in their midst.

Tibetans are sure to see this, Barnett says, as an expression of distrust towards them as a people.



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