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Analysis: Why the Dalai Lama angers China

February 19, 2010

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
February 18, 2010

* Barack Obama to meet with Tibetan spiritual
leader the Dalai Lama in Washington
* Analyst: Since Dalai Lama's abortive 1959
uprising, Bejing sees him as a subversive
* Previous presidents met the Dalai Lama,
prompting strong protests from Beijing
* Chinese officials warn of "repercussions" if Obama meets with the Dalai Lama

Beijing, China (CNN) -- When U.S. president
Barack Obama meets the Dalai Lama at the White
House this week, expect China to get angry.

The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the traditional
religious and temporal head of Tibetan Buddhists.
He was made head of state at age 15 in 1950, the
same year that Chinese troops occupied Tibet.

The Dalai Lama held negotiations with Chinese
officials on Tibetan self-rule with little
success. In 1959, he fled Tibet for exile in
India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

Over the years, the Dalai Lama has continued to
lobby for self-rule in Tibet. Tibetans around the
world revere him as their spiritual leader and
cultural icon. He has traveled the globe,
attending meditation conferences, giving speeches
in universities and parliaments, and meeting
people from all walks of life, from CEOs to
Hollywood stars to heads of state. He received the Nobel peace prize in 1989.

Overseas, the Dalai Lama is a celebrated figure.
In China, he is a despised troublemaker.

Chinese officials have vilified him as a "wolf in
monk's clothing" who seeks to destroy the
country's sovereignty by pushing for
independence. The Dalai Lama maintains that he
does not advocate independence but wants an
autonomy that would allow Tibetans to maintain
their cultural, language and religion under China's rule.

China remains unconvinced.

"The Dalai Lama states that he is not seeking
Tibetan independence, but Beijing sees this as a
mere cover, because he has never openly given up
the demand for so-called 'Greater Tibet'
autonomy, so Beijing sees his meetings with world
leaders as pushing for political goals," said
Wenran Jiang, political science professor at University of Alberta.

Though the Dalai Lama heads a Tibetan
government-in-exile not recognized by any
country, his receptions and meetings with world
leaders prompt China's stern condemnation.

"China is hypersensitive about unrest and
separatism in its border regions," said David
Shambaugh, a professor of political science and
international affairs at George Washington
University. "Ever since the Dalai Lama's abortive
1959 uprising... he has been seen by Beijing as a
subversive and 'splittist.' The Chinese feel that
meeting foreign heads of state, including
President Obama, gives the Dalai Lama political
credibility he does not deserve."

To China, Tibet is a sensitive "core issue." The
Chinese find it unacceptable when they see the
Dalai Lama treated as a VIP, or even akin to a
head of state, because they view it as a
challenge to China's national sovereignty and claim over Tibet.

"Anything that could damage national unity is
dangerous, that's why it's intolerable. The
advocacy and activities of the Dalai Lama and his
followers are actually dangerous, especially
because they use words like 'freedom',
'democracy' and 'human rights' to gain sympathy
overseas," said Gao Yi, a history professor at Peking University.

For months, China gave Germany the cold shoulder
after German Chancellor Angela Merkel met the
Tibetan leader. Relations between the European
Union and China were briefly in the doldrums
after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met the
Dalai Lama while France held the EU's rotating presidency.

"Internationally, if Beijing does not show anger
or protest in the strongest terms, the fear is
that many heads of states will meet the Dalai
Lama. Some of them may wish to do so because they
genuinely respect the Dalai Lama as a religious
figure, others may be under pressure from
domestic constituents and political groups," said
Jiang. "So Chinese leaders want to show as much
disincentives as possible, even though they know
they cannot stop such meetings."

Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama does not come
as a surprise. He avoided a meeting when the
Tibetan leader was in Washington last year to set
a cordial tone in U.S.-China relations early in
his administration and before his first visit to China.

But Obama told the Chinese leaders that he would
one day meet the Dalai Lama. Chinese officials
have repeatedly urged him not to, warning there would be "repercussions."

Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush
also met the Dalai Lama -- meetings that also
prompted strong protests from Beijing. This time,
analysts say the question is where and how the meeting will take place.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown may have
found the right compromise for his meeting with
the Dalai Lama in May 2008, Shambaugh said.

"He met him privately in a religious environment,
not publicly and not politically in Downing
Street. He's the only head of state who has met
the Dalai Lama in recent years who has not been penalized," Shambaugh said.

Perhaps to mollify Beijing, Obama is expected to
meet the Tibetan leaders in the White House Map
Room, not the Oval Office, where the U.S.
president normally meets foreign leaders and VIP guests.

The question is, will Beijing get the nuanced message?
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