WASHINGTON — The Dalai Lama, after meeting privately Tuesday with President Bush, brushed off China's furious reaction to U.S. celebrations this week in his honor.
"That always happens," the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists said with a laugh, speaking to reporters gathered outside his downtown Washington hotel.
Members of Utah's Tibetan community said Tuesday they were pleased that Bush met with the Dalai Lama, despite condemnation from Chinese officials.
"Usually, in the past, presidents have greeted His Holiness through the back door of the White House. I think Bush has been been pretty defiant," said Tenzin, a University of Utah student who preferred not giving her last name, explaining that the Chinese government keeps "an eye" on outspoken Tibetans abroad. Tenzin, who was born and raised in India before moving to the United States in the early 1990s, finally visited Tibet last summer.
On the surface, she said, it looks like there is now religious freedom for Tibetans in their homeland, but the Chinese still imprison Tibetans who put up a portrait of the Dalai Lama.
Pema Chagzoetsang, one of the first Tibetans to move to Utah, hopes the Congressional Gold Medal and Bush's reception will convince the Chinese government that it needs to compromise on the issue of Tibet.
The Chinese, she said, realize that the world has respect for the Dalai Lama's compassion and message of nonviolence. "For China, it's the image issue."
The White House defended the meeting in the president's residence and dismissed Beijing's warning that the talks and the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to him today would damage relations between the United States and China.
The Dalai Lama is hailed in much of the world as a figure of moral authority, but Beijing reviles the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and claims he seeks to destroy China's sovereignty by pushing for independence for Tibet, where the Dalai Lama is considered a god-king.
When asked if he had a message for Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Dalai Lama playfully patted a reporter on the cheek and said, "You are not a representative of Hu Jintao."
He said that during their meeting, he explained to Bush what was happening in Tibet and said he thanked the president for "showing his concern about Tibet."
"We know each other, and we have developed, I think, a very close friendship — something like a reunion of one family," the Dalai Lama said, speaking of Bush.
The Dalai Lama says he wants "real autonomy," not independence, for Tibet. But China demonizes the spiritual leader and believes the United States is honoring a separatist.
Bush and U.S. lawmakers will present the Dalai Lama, who has lived with followers in exile in India since they fled Chinese soldiers in Tibet in 1959, with the prestigious congressional honor today.
China has reacted with anger.
"We solemnly demand that the U.S. cancel the extremely wrong arrangements," said Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. "It seriously violates the norm of international relations and seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China's internal affairs."
Presidential spokesman Tony Fratto said: "We understand the concerns of the Chinese." But he also said Bush always has attended congressional award presentation ceremonies, has met with the Dalai Lama several times before and had no reason not to meet with him again.
No media access was allowed to Bush's meeting with the Dalai Lama in the private residence section of the White House. In an exception to normal practice, the Bush administration did not release any pictures of the meeting. Nor did it put out a formal statement on it.
"We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel that we are poking a stick in their eye for a country that we have a lot of relationships with on a variety of issues," said press secretary Dana Perino. "And this might be one thing that we can do. But I don't believe that that's going to soothe the concerns in China."
Perino did say that Bush would be photographed with the Dalai Lama at today's congressional ceremony.
The Dalai Lama's visit here came as China was holding its important Communist Party congress.
Congress has long championed the Dalai Lama; lawmakers also regularly criticize Beijing for human rights abuses and a massive military buildup and claim that China ignores abuse by unsavory foreign governments in Sudan and Myanmar in its pursuit of energy and business deals.
The administration also finds fault with China but is usually more measured as it seeks to manage a booming trade relationship and a desire to enlist Chinese cooperation on nuclear standoffs with North Korea and Iran.
The Dalai Lama is immensely popular in Tibet, which China has ruled with a heavy hand since its communist-led forces invaded in 1951. He has been based in India since fleeing his Himalayan homeland in 1959 amid a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
Contributing: Elaine Jarvik, Deseret Morning News