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WSU professor urges state leaders not to meet with Dalai Lama

Sister city rep says email not an official position of Chinese government

SALT LAKE CITY — A Weber State University professor who represents the Chinese province that has ties to the Utah Legislature is urging elected leaders not to meet with the Dalai Lama when he speaks next week at the University of Utah.

"Given your particular leadership roles in the state, any meeting between you and him would be inevitably interpreted in ways that would jeopardize Utah's relations with China," the email from Liaoning province representative Taowen Le said.

Le, a Chinese citizen who is an information systems and technologies professor at WSU, said the email was sent "out of goodwill for Utah" and reflects his personal concern, not an official position of the Chinese government.

"Any attempt to read more into that is unnecessary and incorrect," Le told the Deseret News.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is scheduled to speak Tuesday, June 21, at 1:30 pm. about "compassion and universal responsiblity" at the Huntsman Center, the U. and the Utah Tibet Foundation announced earlier this year.

One of the recipients of Le's email, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said he believes it is an official message from China. Dabakis, who lived for two years in China, said to suggest otherwise "shows a misunderstanding of the Chinese culture."

Dabakis said he was offended by what he called "ham-fisted quelling of religious freedom" by China, and he hopes his colleagues in the Utah Legislature will turn out for the Tibetan Buddhist leader's visit.

"This is not how the United States of America works," he said. "This is an opportunity in the real world to say to one of the biggest violators of religious liberties in the world, 'Hey, we stand for religious liberty.'"

President Barack Obama plans to meet with the Dalai Lama at the White House Wednesday. The White House has barred news media coverage of the meeting, which is likely to offend China, the Associated Press reported.

In a joint statement, the Utah House and Senate chiefs of staff described the email as a "message from a friend who shared a personal opinion about the visit" and that lawmakers would take it under advisement along with other constituent email.

Greg Hartley of the House and Ric Cantrell of the Senate said Utah's friendship with Liaoning "has never been contingent upon abandoning our core values, which include freedom of speech and association."

The state has a 10-year relationship with the Chinese province to encourage exchanges in tourism, trade, science and education, recognized in a resolution passed by the 2016 Legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert.

Herbert plans to meet with the Dalai Lama during his Utah visit, the governor's spokesman, Jon Cox, affirmed Tuesday.

"The Dalai Lama is the well-known spiritual leader to Tibetan Buddhists worldwide, including some right here in Utah," Cox said. "The governor frequently welcomes religious leaders to the state, and this is no exception."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, will be on a family vacation during the visit, but Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, will attend an event being held for the Dalai Lama.

Pema Chagzoetsang, a member of the Utah Tibet Foundation board and a newly elected member of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, said efforts to discourage people from seeing the Dalai Lama are nothing new.

"It's very normal. He (Le) may be influenced by the Chinese government to do this," Chagzoetsang said, even though "his Holiness is not representing (himself) as a political leader of Tibet. He's representing as the humanity, spiritual leader of Tibet."

She said the Dalai Lama is already planning to meet with state and local leaders and is confident the email won't change their minds.

"It's their loss, not meeting his Holiness. I think any opportunity to meet his Holiness or to be in his presence is a gift. It is a blessing," Chagzoetsang said. "I hope they will not make a mistake."

Last October, the Dalai Lama canceled a visit to Utah where he was to speak at the University of Utah and take part in the Parliament of the World's Religions, after he was ordered to rest by physicians treating him for a prostate issue.

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his nonviolent struggle to free Tibet, the Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet 30 years earlier during an uprising against the Chinese army and has established an administration in India.

He previously visited the U. in May 2001. The U. had no comment on Le's email, said Cheri Daily, director of external relations and development for the U. Office of Global Engagement.

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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