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Why Bush risks China's ire to honor Dalai Lama

The president doesn't want to appear to be appeasing China, experts say.

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The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, political irritant to Beijing, is being honored in Washington this week as never before.

It's not unusual that he will talk with President Bush in the White House residence. After all, he's visited with Mr. Bush three times.

But on Oct. 18 congressional leaders will present him with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor lawmakers can award. And Bush will attend the ceremony – subtly raising the Dalai Lama's status in terms of diplomatic protocol.

The importance of the move can be seen by the reaction of Chinese officials, who see Tibet as a renegade province. They're furious.

"They don't give this medal to just anybody," says Charles Freeman, China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's a big deal."

However, it is unlikely that the Bush administration is embracing the Dalai Lama as a means of punishing Beijing in some manner, says Mr. Freeman.

After all, it was Congress that voted to give the Dalai Lama the medal.

Bush officials probably felt that if they avoided the ceremony it would appear they were appeasing China, which has ruled Tibet with a heavy hand since 1951, says Freeman.

"This is simply a card he feels he has to play," says Freeman. "Unfortunately, Chinese political reaction tends to be at only one decibel level: high."

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In the days leading up the Dalai Lama's Washington visit, Chinese officials have branded his improved welcome as interference in China's internal affairs and warned that it will have an "extremely serious impact" on US-China relations.

China has recently stepped up attacks on the Dalai Lama. A signed editorial issued last week by the official Xinhua news agency accused him of supporting the Japanese renegade Buddhist Aum Shrinyiko cult and the outlawed Chinese Falun Gong spiritual movement.

"The 14th Dalai Lama's own deeds ... have step by step betrayed his real intentions and political ambitions under the guise of Buddhism and peace," the editorial, published in the official English language China Daily, charged.

China has long accused the Dalai Lama of "splittism" and attempts to win Tibetan independence from Chinese rule. Intermittent negotiations between Tibetan and Chinese officials have so far failed to bear fruit. Beijing says the Dalai Lama could return to China only if he accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

The US is not the first to anger China over hosting the Dalai Lama. Last month Beijing harshly criticized Germany following a meeting between the Dalai Lama and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Canada received similar treatment after it granted the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship.

One key difference in the Chinese reaction to the actions of other governments involves economics. China threatened Germany that a welcome for the Dalai Lama could disrupt trade between the two countries. But the US is a giant export market, and China's threats to the US have been more generalized sputtering.

In addition, Bush has paired his warmer public stance toward the Dalai Lama with acceptance of an invitation to attend the 2008 Summer Olympics in China. The Chinese are likely loath to do anything that might interfere with that visit, given its vast public-relations potential.

Staff writer Peter Ford contributed to this report.

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