Utah lawmakers warned against meeting with Dalai Lama

Posted at 4:34 PM, Jun 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-14 20:03:05-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Ahead of his visit to the University of Utah next week, members of the Utah State Legislature have been warned against meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said at a news briefing Tuesday it was urging governments "not to give him any room." It accused the Dalai Lama of peddling his "political ambitions of dividing China all around the world."

In an email sent to Republican and Democratic legislative leaders and obtained by FOX 13 News, Dr. Taowen Le, a Weber State University professor, warned lawmakers not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Le is the U.S. representative for China's Liaoning Province and a board member of the China Overseas Exchange Association.

"It is unfortunate enough that Utah has invited Dalai," he wrote in the email. "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."

"It takes years of efforts to build a good relation, but it takes only one critical wrong move to sour it.  As a long-time friend of the Utah State Legislature  who has lived in Utah for 32 years, I sincerely and respectfully request that you carefully evaluate the circumstances and avoid meeting with Dalai Lama."

Le declined an interview request, but said he was speaking on his own and not on behalf of the Chinese government.

Some lawmakers FOX 13 spoke with pushed back against the email, insisting they will meet with the exiled Tibetan leader. Others expressed concern about harming valued relations with China. In recent years, Utah has carried out trade and tourism missions with the country.

"We don't want to get into any geopolitical war or dispute with anyone," said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "But to the extent people come to our state, we like to be good hosts. You'll see that in the House and Senate. I don't think it's a controversy."

Governor Gary Herbert's office told FOX 13 he planned to greet the Dalai Lama, like he would any other religious leader who comes to the state. House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he also planned to meet with him.

"I think it's important for us not to be intimidated by sort of bullying and threats along the line of, 'If you meet with him you'll hurt our feels, or we'll be angry with you,'" King said.

The Dalai Lama is speaking June 21 at the University of Utah. The university said Tuesday that some tickets were still available for the speech.

Read a joint statement by the House and Senate Majority offices:

The unique friendship developing between China and Utah has never been contingent upon abandoning our core values, which include freedoms of speech and association. Our partners in China have gone to great lengths to understand and accommodate Utah values, and we have done the same for them. 

We have received no official communication from the People's Republic of China regarding the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the State of Utah, nor do we expect any. We did, however, receive an email message from a friend who shared a personal opinion about the visit.  Legislators will likely take that opinion under advisement, as we do with other constituent email.

We don't believe participation in any educational activity or event will harm the mutually beneficial sub-national partnerships between American states and Chinese provinces.  We will continue to develop opportunities for trade, tourism, and educational exchange between Utah and China. 

True friends and partners remain so, even when there are political differences beyond their control.

Greg Hartley
House of Representatives Chief of Staff

Ric Cantrell
Senate Chief of Staff