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Dalai Lama Awarded Congressional Gold Medal Despite Chinese Protests

October 17, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, a day of honor for the Dalai Lama. Ray Suarez begins our coverage with a look at what happened today in Washington.

RAY SUAREZ: Equal parts spiritual figure and international sensation, the Dalai Lama came to the U.S. Capitol today to receive Congress’s highest honor.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: President Roosevelt gave the Dalai Lama a gold watch. Today, President Bush will give him the Congressional Gold Medal.

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush joined leaders of both houses in celebrating the life and work of the 72-year-old Tibetan Buddhist leader. Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama, a position of paramount religious importance to Tibet’s Buddhists that traces its lineage to the 14th century.

Today, he spoke of his mission to promote nonviolence and religious understanding in the 21st century.

THE DALAI LAMA: It is a conviction in these values that gives me powerful motivation to promote basic human values.

RAY SUAREZ: The Dalai Lama has lived in exile since 1959, mostly in neighboring India. China has ruled Tibet since invading the mountain nation in 1951. The Dalai Lama received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and remains spiritual leader to Tibet’s six million Buddhists and millions more worldwide.

But amid the pomp came an important, dissenting opinion. The decision by Congress to honor the Dalai Lama, supported by President Bush, has enraged China. The Dalai Lama said China ought not fear him, but rather work with him to resolve tensions.

THE DALAI LAMA: Sometimes Chinese accuse us that we are an instrument of Western, anti-Chinese forces. I don’t think. To you, my American friends, I appeal to you to making every effort to seek ways to help convince the Chinese leadership of my sincerity and help make our dialogue process move forward.

RAY SUAREZ: In deference to Chinese sensibilities, a meeting at the White House yesterday between the president, the first lady, and the Dalai Lama was neither photographed nor held in the Oval Office. At a press conference this morning, the president defended the award, the recipient, and his own participation.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I told the Chinese president, President Hu, that I was going to go to the ceremony. I brought it up, and I said, “I’m going because I want to honor this man.”

I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation’s interest. I don’t think it’s going to severely damage relations. As a matter of fact, I don’t think it ever damages relations when an American president talks about, you know, religious tolerance and religious freedom is good for a nation.

Chinese criticism of the Dalai Lama

RAY SUAREZ: The Dalai Lama will visit Georgia and Indiana during the remainder of the week before returning home.

Now, a different look at this day's events as they were seen in China. Our report comes from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News Correspondent: Tibetan monks visiting Tiananmen Square, China says they're free to practice their religion, but not to follow the Dalai Lama. Their tour guide wasn't happy when we asked what he thought of the congressional medal.

Around the corner, in the Tibet room of the Great Hall of the People, a delegation from the Tibet Communist Party was discussing President Hu Jintao's speech at the party congress. They're also not happy about the visit.

ZHANG QING LI, Tibetan Communist Party Secretary (through translator): Dalai Lama is someone who doesn't love his motherland and splits his country. Then, he's welcomed by certain countries and receives medals. We're very angry. This is a rude interference in China's internal affairs. We strongly oppose this. We're furious.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Nothing makes the Chinese government quite as angry as the reverence in which the Dalai Lama is held in much of the rest of the world. Now they're in a position to make that anger felt.

The American and European governments see China's cooperation as essential when it comes to issues like Burma, Darfur, or Iran, so the Chinese are trying to show it won't come for free. To express their displeasure, the foreign ministry has pulled out of a meeting on Iran.

LIU JIANCHAO, Foreign Ministry Spokesman: This move by the United States is very harmful to the Sino-American relations. We hope that the United States will take into consideration of the general relationship between the two countries, but I'm sure that such a move by the U.S. side will be detrimental to the bilateral relationship.

LINDSEY HILSUM: It's banned, but Tibetan children wear the Dalai Lama's image. Amnesty International says four Tibetan teenagers in Gansu province have been detained and tortured for writing independence slogans.

WANG PI JUN, State Council Information Office (through translator): Some cases are blown out of all proportion on purpose by Dalai Lama. They're misinterpreted; they distort the situation in Tibet; they exaggerate and fabricate cases in Tibet.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Dawn over the Tibetan capital. The faithful carry a giant image of the Buddha from a monastery. Chinese officials accuse the Dalai Lama of being a politician in monk's clothing, but many Tibetan Buddhists are proud of the Dalai Lama's...

Threats to U.S.-China relations

Ming Wan
George Mason University
The Chinese government is always concerned about what they consider to be the internationalization of the Tibetan issue, because they consider Tibet to be China's internal affair.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Dalai Lama as both an iconic spiritual figure and a political lightning rod, we turn to Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, he's been a student and friend of the Dalai Lama for decades.

And Ming Wan, professor of government and politics, and director of the global affairs program at George Mason University, he was born in Beijing and is now a U.S. citizen.

And, Professor Wan, "We are furious," "damage to U.S.-China relationships," why this really, really strong reaction from the Chinese over this ceremony and medal?

MING WAN, George Mason University: Well, the Chinese government is always concerned about what they consider to be the internationalization of the Tibetan issue, because they consider Tibet to be China's internal affair. And this is also a particularly sensitive moment.

The Chinese Communist Party is having the 17th Party Congress right now. And this is a situation when different factions position themselves for greater influence. And it's very easy for hard-liners to use very harsh rhetoric. And you are not going to see moderates defending the Dalai Lama.

But at the same time, even though the rhetoric is very harsh, the Chinese government and we will begin to see some change, some more moderate voice about the importance of religion to Chinese modernization and whether Tibetan Buddhism can make a significant contribution to that process.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the Communist Party lingo, he's often referred to as a "splittist," literally a separatist who wants to take Tibet back to independence. Is he the leader of an independence movement?

MING WAN: Well, the Chinese government used to call him that. And right now, you know, there was change. Last year, for example, in the private conversation, the negotiations between the Chinese and the Tibetans, the Chinese government did acknowledge that his holiness was not seeking independence.

This year, their tone has changed somewhat, but there's clearly a voice within the Chinese government who essentially understands better the Tibet issue. The problem is that the hard-liners are essentially having a stronger voice now at this political moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how, Professor Thurman, has the Dalai Lama's attitude toward Tibet and what he wants to see for his homeland changed over the years since his exile?

ROBERT THURMAN, Columbia University: I don't think it's changed, Ray. I think that he consistently has said that the problem with Tibet is not his problem. People often try to put it in terms of, can the Dalai Lama go home or not go home, as if he had a problem? He's actually quite happy wherever he is; he's that type of guy.

But his problem is that the Tibetan people do not feel well-treated. They felt very persecuted for 25, 30 years. And now they feel colonized and marginalized, and they're overwhelmed by a vast influx of Chinese settlers, and so that's always his concern.

It's really -- and he left Tibet finally to be able to be a spokesperson for those people, since he wasn't heard by the Chinese government from within China. So his attitude has not changed. The change of the early talk about restoring Tibet's tradition with historic independence is only because he learned more about the world system.

And, also, he saw China itself changing, so he realized that there was no way, really, to go in that direction, even though historically Tibet had been independent before being invaded in 1951, as you said on your show.

The Dalai Lama's role in Tibet

Robert Thurman
Columbia University
[The Dalai Lama] always was a head of state, since about 1654 -- 1642 rather. The fifth Dalai Lama was crowned as head of state at the request of the Tibetan nobles who had been warring for about a century.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's clarify what he was to Tibet, strictly a spiritual leader, a monarch, a head of state?

ROBERT THURMAN: No, no, he always was a head of state, since about 1654 -- 1642 rather. The fifth Dalai Lama was crowned as head of state at the request of the Tibetan nobles who had been warring for about a century. It was right around the time of the end of the 100 years war in Europe, and they decided they had enough fighting, enough warlords, so they would let a religious figure run the country along the model of the previous time when the second Lama had been the head of the country under the Mongol empire.

And so that happened at that time. And since then, they've more or less demilitarized, and they had a fairly peaceful time under the 300 years of the Dalai Lama, also. Then, in the 20th century, we know what happened, is China moved in. The nationalist Chinese claimed Tibet, but they never had a foot in Tibet, actually. But then Mao, of course, came in, in 1951.

So the Dalai Lama at first was just going historically, "This is a country that has invaded since the U.N. was founded, and borders were declared sacrosanct. And, therefore, we want our country back." But he began to realize that they might do better working with the Chinese constitution, you know, after Mao, and being a genuinely autonomous region within China and have China respect its own provisions and its own constitution about how you're not supposed to settle too many Chinese or Han Chinese settlers within any of the ethnic majority regions, and so therefore protect the very delicate ecosystem of Tibet, which is very high altitude and really suited only for Tibetan lifestyle, and by damaging it by putting in cities and too many people.

So under that light, he has pledged -- and he is sincere -- that he wishes to campaign amongst his country people. And not all the Tibetans agree with him, actually, in spite of his tremendous authority. But he will campaign amongst his people to have them elect, to voluntarily legitimize China's control of Tibet, rather than just invade, occupy and annex, as it has been so far.

And he's the best person for them to make that deal with, if they would just relax on the rhetoric.

A middle-way solution?

Ming Wan
George Mason University
From [China's] perspective, the Dalai Lama has a hidden agenda.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Wan, as we heard, there has been change. There has been flux, yet this ferocious reaction anyway. Is China ready to meet the Dalai Lama halfway here?

MING WAN: The Dalai Lama has been talking about a middle-way solution instead of genuine autonomy. He has been talking on different occasions, so the Chinese government clearly has heard him. But they are still concerned.

From their perspective, the Dalai Lama has a hidden agenda. And, by the way, that's why his holiness was talking about genuine autonomy is not going to be stepping stone towards independence, because he was addressing a part of the Chinese government's concern.

And part of this problem is lack of trust. And, you know, the Dalai Lama talked about this himself. He's hoping to bridge that gap between the two sides. But right now, on the Chinese side, there is a clear sort of concern that he's just using all this international publicity to really advance his true agenda, which is independence.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Thurman, this Buddhist monk is often seen in the glare of flash bulbs, getting in and out of cars with people opening the door. As his personal popularity has increased, has it put the Tibetan issue into the shade? Has China's hold on the place strengthened, even while their exiled leader has become a more popular figure himself?

ROBERT THURMAN: Well, the China hold has strengthened and strengthened, of course. China in general has strengthened and strengthened, and more power to them. And the Dalai Lama doesn't wish them any ill at all. He wants to be their good friend, actually, genuinely.

He was born in an area of Tibet that is right in the border of China. In his household, he spoke Chinese as a youth. So he -- right at the edge there was what the Tibetans call "Amdo" and the Chinese call "Qinghai" is where he was born. And so he has no animus at all about China.

And, actually, the Tibetan invasion and the terrible struggles and suffering, the one million people probably killed, half by famine, half by class struggle, you know, under the Maoist serious social upheaval situation that they would do, that is long past. And now things could be settled very easily.

And he could -- and they could -- I feel that China would gain tremendously world appreciation if they themselves would meet with him. In a way, this trust issue that Professor Wan mentions, which I think is very correct, could only probably be bridged if the leadership of China felt strong enough themselves among themselves, between hard-liners and moderates, to personally meet the Dalai Lama.

It doesn't have to be in Beijing. It could be some other place. But if they met him, anybody who meets the Dalai Lama realizes he has no hidden thing, his cards are all on the table. As they said, he's Mr. Compassion, as Nancy Pelosi said. Even the Republican minority whip said, "This man stands for peace, for compassion," everyone was saying that.

So I think it's a matter of -- and Asian diplomacy is like that. It's person-to-person, face-to-face, and that's what they need.

RAY SUAREZ: Professors, gentlemen, thank you both.

MING WAN: Thank you.