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Analysis: Why the Dalai Lama angers China

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
The Dalai Lama is greeted by well wishers on February 17 after arriving in Washington, DC.
The Dalai Lama is greeted by well wishers on February 17 after arriving in Washington, DC.
  • 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.

Video: China on the Dalai Lama

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.

To China, Tibet is a sensitive "core issue."
--Jaime FlorCruz, CNN's Beijing Bureau Chief
  • Dalai Lama
  • China
  • Tibet
  • Barack Obama

"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?