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China’s Reaction to U.S. Lawmakers Meeting the Dalai Lama in India

China's Reaction to U.S. Lawmakers Meeting the Dalai Lama in India

NEW DELHI—Despite Beijing’s cautions to avoid a figure it regards as a dangerous anti-China separatist, a group of US legislators met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to urge for greater freedoms for Tibet.

The bipartisan party, which included former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, met with the 88-year-old on Wednesday at his monastery in the Himalayan city of Dharamshala, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The meeting comes one week after Congress passed a bipartisan bill urging China to seek talks with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders about the status and rights of the Tibetan people. US lawmakers who support the bill have depicted the legislation, which President Biden is set to sign into law despite Beijing’s concerns, as a refresh of U.S. policy over Tibet.

The bill marks “a major shift in U.S. policy toward Tibet on a road of self-determination,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and bill sponsor, in Dharamshala.

This week’s group is the first notable congressional visit to the Dalai Lama’s home in years, with Pelosi leading a similar delegation to the town in 2017 as House Minority Leader.

The United States law, which also attempts to contradict Chinese myths about Tibet, comes as Beijing intensifies its efforts to control how Tibet is referred to and prepares for a war over the Dalai Lama’s succession.

Tibet experts said the bill’s passage reflected deteriorating US-China relations and Washington’s efforts to fight Beijing on multiple global fronts.

“This has to do with what’s happening between the U.S. and China,” said Swati Chawla, an associate professor of Tibet and Himalayan history at O.P. Jindal Global University in Haryana, India. “So not just Tibet, but support for Taiwan.”

China Foreign Ministry

Lin Jian, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said during a press briefing on Tuesday that Beijing was concerned about the law and encouraged the United States not to interfere in Chinese domestic matters. He referred to the Dalai Lama as “a political exile engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion.”

“No one and no force should ever attempt to destabilize Xizang in order to contain and suppress China,” he added, using the name increasingly promoted by Chinese officials in English-language communications to refer to Tibet, a mountainous region on China’s western border with a distinct identity based on Tibetan Buddhism.

What’s happening between the U.S. and China

Since sending troops into Tibet in 1950, China’s Communist Party has sought to consolidate authority over the province.

Over the years, Beijing has directed long-term efforts to assimilate ethnic Tibetans, including establishing limitations on Tibetan religion, education, and language, and attempting to crush a Tibetan movement led by the Dalai Lama.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk was a youngster when the newly created People’s Republic of China seized control of Tibet, and he fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. In exile, he became a global superstar who brought attention to Tibet’s quest for autonomy and religious freedom.

India recognizes Tibet as part of China but has strained relations with its neighbor by harboring Tibetan exiles over the years.

In recent years global attention to the Tibet problem has decreased as growing US concerns about China’s assertiveness have shifted to other fronts, such as supporting democratically controlled Taiwan, which China has long claimed as its own territory.

After decades of regular public encounters with US presidents such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama declined to meet with former President Donald Trump. He has not met with US President Joe Biden since the latter entered office in 2021.

The Dalai Lama is heading to the United States this week for medical treatment but it is unclear whether he will hold any official engagements.

In recent years, Chinese officials have altered their discourse toward Tibet, increasingly using the term Xizang, the official English-language spelling of the name given to the region by the country’s Han majority That move is part of a larger push to integrate China’s ethnic minorities into a single national identity based on the Han majority.

Beijing has also been preparing for a confrontation over the Dalai Lama’s successor, who will turn 89 in July. Reincarnation is the ancient method for determining the succession of Tibet’s religious and secular leaders.

China’s officially atheist leadership says they will choose the next Dalai Lama, although the current Dalai Lama insists his reincarnation is his own choice. He has stated that he will not be reincarnated in any Chinese-controlled territory, and that he may choose not to be reborn at all.

Concerns that the window to campaign for Tibetan rights might expire with the death of the current Dalai Lama may have prompted U.S. senators to act now, according to Chawla, the history professor.

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