BEIJING – The United States has "gravely undermined" relations with China by giving the Dalai Lama an award, the Chinese government said Thursday.
On Wednesday, U.S. President George W. Bush presented Tibet's exiled spiritual leader with the U.S. Congress' highest civilian honor and urged Chinese leaders to welcome him to Beijing.
"The move of the United States is a blatant interference with China's internal affairs which has severely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and gravely undermined the relations between China and the United States," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a news conference.
He said Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had summoned U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt to express "strong protest to the U.S. government."
China has warned that giving the award to a person it believes is trying to split the country would have serious consequences for relations, but has not said what it would do.
With the Dalai Lama by his side, Bush praised a man he called a "universal symbol of peace and tolerance, a shepherd of the faithful and a keeper of the flame for his people."
"Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away," Bush said at the U.S. Capitol building, where he personally handed the Dalai Lama the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.
The Dalai Lama is lauded in much of the world as a figure of moral authority, but China reviles as a Tibetan separatist and for the past week has vehemently protested the elaborate public ceremony.
The 72-year-old monk and 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate says he wants "real autonomy" for Tibet, not independence. He is immensely popular in the Himalayan region, which China has ruled with a heavy hand since its communist-led forces invaded in 1951. He has lived with followers in exile in India since fleeing Chinese soldiers in Tibet in 1959.
Bush said he did not think his attendance at the ceremony would damage relations with China.
"I support religious freedom; he supports religious freedom. ... I want to honor this man," Bush told reporters at the White House. "I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest."
On Tuesday, however, the Bush administration took pains to keep a private meeting with the president and the Dalai Lama from further infuriating China: no media access, not even a handout photo.
Bush wants to ease anger in China, a growing economic and military powerhouse that the United States needs to manage nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also wants to be seen as a champion of religious freedom and human rights.