Decision Not to Meet With Tibetan Leader Sends Wrong Signal, Say Critics

By Patrick Goodenough | October 6, 2009 | 2:17 AM EDT

President Bush, wearing a scarf presented to him by the Dalai Lama, meets with the Buddhist leader at the White House on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2005 (White House photo by Paul Morse)

( – The State Department insists that President Obama’s decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama this week does not mark a change in U.S. policy on Tibet, but critics say the move sends the wrong signal about U.S. willingness to confront rights-abusing regimes.

The Dalai Lama on Tuesday will receive the first Lantos Human Rights Prize at a ceremony on Capitol Hill but a meeting with Obama has been ruled out during his five-day stay in Washington. Instead he is expected to meet with the administration’s newly named coordinator for Tibet, Maria Otero.

Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s envoy in the U.S., said that the Buddhist leader, “taking a broader and long-term perspective,” had agreed to meet with Obama after the president travels to China in November.

“The Dalai Lama has always been supportive of American engagement with China,” he said. “Our hope is that the cooperative U.S.-Chinese relationship that President Obama’s administration seeks will create conditions that support the resolution of the legitimate grievances of the Tibetan people.”

According to The Washington Post, Tibetan representatives had pressed for a White House meeting this week but had been unsuccessful in securing one.

Beijing works tirelessly to marginalize the Dalai Lama, accusing him of stoking separatism despite his stated support for autonomy for the homeland he fled half a century ago after a failed uprising against Chinese occupation.

Chinese officials have frequently applied pressure on governments considering hosting him, with mixed results.

Last December it warned the European Union of long-term damage to relations over a planned meeting between the Tibetan and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The meeting went ahead, and China called off a summit with E.U. leaders.

Earlier this year South Africa denied the Dalai Lama a visa after coming under Chinese pressure.

Meetings with U.S. presidents have taken place since 1991, although the first time a sitting America president met with the Tibetan leader in a public setting was in 2007, when President Bush accompanied him to the U.S. Capitol for the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal.

Beijing said the incident had “impaired” bilateral relations, and linked it to its refusal the following month to allow three U.S. warships to enter Hong Kong port for the Thanksgiving weekend.

Against that background, the administration’s decision not to hold an Obama-Dalai Lama meeting until after the president pays his first visit to China next month has drawn strong criticism. It comes after Hillary Clinton, on her first visit to China as secretary of state early this year, said differences over human rights could not be allowed to interfere with priorities like “the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration was “kowtowing to Beijing again by refusing to meet with” the Dalai Lama.

Freedom House said postponing the meeting “sends the wrong signal to the Chinese government at a time when the authorities in Beijing are intensifying efforts to silence peaceful critics at home and abroad.”

The democracy watchdog pointed to recent attempts to thwart the Dalai Lama as well as the exiled Uighur rights advocate Rebiya Kadeer and their supporters.

“By preemptively postponing the meeting with the Dalai Lama the administration risks further emboldening the Chinese authorities’ impulse toward censorship,” it said in a statement.

Caption: The Dalai Lama addresses a news conference in Calgary, Canada on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009. (AP Photo)

‘Rights on the backburner’

“It is hard to see how shunning the Dalai Lama will advance American interests,” said Freedom House executive director Jennifer Windsor.
“The Obama administration is presenting an unfortunate profile by putting human rights so conspicuously on the backburner in its relations with repressive regimes.”

“The president has decided that he will meet with the Dalai Lama at a mutually agreeable time,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday. “I think that there was an announcement that it would be after his trip to China.”

Asked whether the decision marked a possible policy shift on Tibet, Kelly said that he “wouldn’t necessarily read anything” into it.

Otero, who is undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs and was last week given the addition role of Tibetan issues coordinator, would meet with the Dalai Lama on his current trip.

“We’ve decided to meet with the Dalai Lama because of our respect for his position, the fact that he is a revered spiritual leader,” Kelly said. “Our position regarding China is clear that we want to engage China. We think China is an important global player.

“We also don’t try and downplay some of the concerns we have about China and some of our disagreements with China in the area of human rights, religious freedom and freedom of expression,” he added.

President Bush and the Dalai Lama share a laugh at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 (White House photo by Chris Greenber)

Religious freedom concerns

Shortly after the founding of communist China, Beijing reasserted control of Tibet, which had been independent since 1913.

In 1959 Tibetan separatists launched an armed uprising against Chinese control but the revolt was violently crushed and some 100,000 Tibetans fled into exile, along with the Dalai Lama.

China says there has been a vast improvement in living standards in Tibet since what it calls its “peaceful liberation,” saying that a backward, feudal system had given way to “democratic reform and social progress.”

Critics say Tibetan culture has been destroyed and its religion suppressed.

Beijing’s treatment of Tibetan Buddhists is cited by the State Department in its annual reports on international religious freedom; China is one of eight currently designated “countries of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. It has been designated each year since 1999.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a statutory body created under the 1998 legislation to give independent recommendations to the executive branch and Congress, is urging Obama to challenge the Chinese.

“USCIRF welcomes President Obama’s eloquent statements about why religious freedom is an American interest rooted in our nation’s history, but urges him to speak about why religious freedom is in China’s interest, rooted in international human rights treaties and conventions,” it said in a statement.

“USCIRF urges the president to do this during a promised visit to China next month.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow