U.S. President Barack Obama met with exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama at the White House Friday, exciting the Chinese government, whose representatives issued strong protests and warnings against the meeting. President Obama, who also met with the Dalai Lama in 2010 and 2011 despite Chinese protests, strongly supports religious freedom and human rights in China, according to spokespeople for the White House.
The meeting with the Dalai Lama was announced late Thursday, prompting an immediate protest by the Chinese government. China’s foreign minister Hua Chunying announced that the President’s meeting with the Dalai Lama was a “gross interference in China’s internal affairs.” According to Mrs. Hua, the meeting was also a serious violation of international relations norms. Hua urged the U.S. to take China’s concerns seriously and not provide the Dalai Lama with an “occasion to conduct anti-China secessionist moves.” Hua urged the U.S. government to immediately take measures to remove the “baneful influence” of the exiled spiritual leader to “avoid further impairment of Chinese-U.S. relations.” “If the President wants to meet any person, that is his own business, but he cannot meet the Dalai Lama,” said Hua.
White House spokespeople announced that the U.S. government did not support Tibetan independence. This is also the current position of the Dalai Lama, whose policy for Tibet is a hope for greater autonomy–not secession. The U.S. is concerned, however, about the prolonged tense relationship between Tibetans and the Chinese government as well as the situation of deteriorating human rights in Tibet and other parts of China.
Despite world-wide condemnation at China’s treatment of Tibetans, and despite the over one hundred reported of instances of self immolation from areas of total state-ordered communications blackout, the Chinese government maintains that economic development in Tibet has improved Tibetans’ lives and that the self immolations are criminally separationist acts of terrorism against the Tibetans’ rightful government. Tibetan self immolations are the primary topic reported by global newspapers–often the only news coverage given to Tibet. The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet into India in 1959, is blamed by China for instigating the self immolations and is accused by China of paying the self immolators for their actions. The Chinese claims are refuted strongly by the statements of every self immolator, most of whom left notes or shouted slogans as they self immolated in public areas in protest of the Chinese presence in Tibet. China has taken a hardline stance against self immolation, imprisoning self immolators who survive as well as their family members and associates, who the Chinese government considers accomplices. Areas of Tibet where such political activity is carried out are the subject of road closures, monastery and village searches, surveillance and media blackouts.
The meeting Friday took place in the Map Room of the White House. Usually, visiting leaders are hosted in the Oval Office, where custom includes a round of photographs. The Friday meeting was closed to reporters. The Dalai Lama’s visit was not in his capacity as a political leader but as a cultural and religious leader.
Commenters have noted that international groups, while disagreeing with China’s policies and activities, have not been keen to force China to address its human rights record. China’s strength as an economic trading partner is by far the primary reason cited for this attitude.
China has controlled Tibet several times throughout history. The current status of Tibet as a part of China stems from the 1951 military invasion of Tibet by China. Chinese control of Tibet was solidified in 1959 when China defeated the Tibetan Uprising. The wave of self immolations began in 2009 and spread over all areas of Tibet.
In 2009 President Obama canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama, sparking criticism that the President was appeasing China–Obama would have been the first U.S. President not to welcome the Nobel-prize winning spiritual leader. President George W. Bush awarded the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian award, in 2007. President Obama, however, met with the Dalai Lamaat the White House in 2010 and 2011 in addition to Fridays visit, despite Chinese protests and warnings at each occasion.
By Day Blakely Donaldson