WASHINGTON - China's violent crackdown on protesters in Tibet is having powerful political reverberations in Washington, where the White House is weighing how far to go in condemning the Chinese government, even as it defends President Bush's decision to attend the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Mr. Bush has long said the United States and China have "a complex relationship," and that complexity was on full display this week. While his administration has called for an end to the violence, and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, phoned her Chinese counterpart to urge restraint, Mr. Bush himself has remained silent.
In the meantime, the presidential candidates are speaking out, as is the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. On Friday, Ms. Pelosi visited the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, at his headquarters in Dharamsala, India - and poked a finger in the eye of Beijing.
Describing the clashes in the past week between Chinese security forces and Tibetan demonstrators as "a challenge to conscience of the world," Ms. Pelosi, Democrat of California, said, "If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China's oppression in China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world."
If it seemed like a direct challenge to Mr. Bush, he did not take the bait.
"At this point, there is no doubt that the Chinese government knows where President Bush stands," said Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman. He said the White House had no comment on Ms. Pelosi's visit.
The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since 1959, when China crushed an uprising in Tibet, his homeland. He has been pressing, without success, to return to China to advocate for greater cultural and religious freedom for his followers. China, though, has branded him a "splittist" and has accused him of masterminding the current wave of protests - a charge Ms. Pelosi dismissed as nonsense on Friday.
It was unclear what Ms. Pelosi's visit would yield for Tibetans. But for Ms. Pelosi, the timing was propitious. In front of a horde of television news cameras that had decamped all week to cover the Dalai Lama, she and her husband, Paul, descended the stairs of the main temple to huge applause, the 72-year-old Buddhist monk between them, holding their hands.
Nuns and schoolchildren waved American flags. The Dalai Lama ordered his followers to rise and offer Ms. Pelosi a standing ovation. One man held up a homemade placard that read, "Thank you for recognizing nonviolent struggle."
The visit provoked a tart response from the Chinese ambassador to India, who depicted it as American interference. "We don't allow anybody to meddle in China's internal affairs," the ambassador, Zhang Yan, told reporters in New Delhi, according to The Press Trust of India. "Any attempt to cause trouble to China is doomed to fail."
Ms. Pelosi is hardly the only American politician taking China to task. On Friday, Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, traveling in France, warned that China's behavior was "not acceptable" for a world power. Earlier in the week, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the two Democratic presidential contenders, issued strong criticisms of China.
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Mr. Bush, too, has made a strong show of solidarity with the Dalai Lama. In October, he met privately with the Tibetan leader at the White House and then attended a ceremony at the Capitol, where the Dalai Lama was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. It was the first time the two had appeared in public together, and the White House was well aware of the symbolism.
China analysts say the violence in Tibet demands that the president chart a careful course. "I think to the extent that he can work the issue privately, it's better, frankly," said Jeffrey A. Bader, an Asia specialist who worked at the National Security Council under President Clinton. "The public statements just make the Chinese dig in their heels all the more, make them more resolute in their repression."
American presidents have historically found relations with China to be a delicate dance. But none more so than Mr. Bush, especially since September, when he met with China's president, Hu Jintao, in Sydney, Australia, and accepted Mr. Hu's invitation to attend the Beijing Olympics.
Mr. Bush has said that he wants to support American athletes and views the Games as a sporting event, but that he will use his attendance to put pressure on China to improve its human rights record. But human rights advocates have linked the Olympics with violence in the Darfur region of Sudan and have accused Mr. Bush of giving his imprimatur to a country that, in their view, is not exerting enough influence as a major buyer of Sudanese oil to stop what the White House has termed a genocide.
On Capitol Hill, two representatives, Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, and Neil Abercrombie, Democrat of Hawaii, are leading a push for a boycott of the Beijing Games. China analysts, though, say Mr. Bush has little choice but to attend, even if it means a political backlash at home.
"This is China's coming out party," said Michael Green, an Asia expert and former Bush administration official. "If he were to cancel, it would be such a loss of face for China that it would make working with them on issues from North Korea to human rights much more difficult."
So far, Mr. Bush has stood firm.
"I'm going to the Olympics," the president said last month, when Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker, announced that he was dropping out as an artistic adviser for the Games. "I view the Olympics as a sporting event. On the other hand, I have a little different platform than Steven Spielberg, so I get to talk to President Hu Jintao."
If the violence in Tibet grows, however, the pressure could increase for Mr. Bush to take some kind of symbolic stand. The French foreign minister said this week that he would entertain the idea of skipping the Olympics opening ceremony - a symbolic gesture that would be less than a full boycott. Mr. Johndroe said such a step was not under discussion at the White House.
"We're focused on ending the violence now," he said, "not an event six months from now."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported from Washington, and Somini Sengupta from Dharamsala, India.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company