On the eve of President Barack Obama's first visit to Asia, China floated a potentially provocative comparison, likening serfdom in Tibet to slavery in the U.S. _ an apparent attempt to gain support for its policies in the Himalayan region.
Invoking Obama's African heritage and Civil War president Abraham Lincoln, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday that Obama should be more sympathetic to its contention it has brought development and prosperity to Tibet since 1959.
Asked about a possible meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, Qin said the U.S. president should recognize the exiled Tibetan leader _ a Nobel Peace Prize winner _ as the former head of a slave state.
"In 1959, China abolished the feudal serf system just as President Lincoln freed the black slaves. So we hope President Obama more than any other foreign state leader can have a better understanding on China's position on opposing the Dalai's splitting activities," Qin told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference.
Many Tibetans reject such arguments, saying Tibet was an independent state when Chinese communist troops entered in 1950. They also say that while Tibetan peasants were required to work on feudal estates, they enjoyed considerable freedoms and were not slaves.
The Dalai Lama, who leads a self-declared government-in-exile in India, says he seeks only a high level of autonomy for Tibet within the constitutional framework of the People's Republic of China _ something he terms "the Middle Way."
Responding to Qin's comments, Dalai Lama spokesman Tenzin Taklha called them "the usual accusations.
"China continues to accuse His Holiness of wanting to split the motherland. But His Holiness has been very clear in his position," Tenzin Taklha said.
"The whole world knows that the Dalai Lama is not seeking a separation. These are all baseless accusations," he said.
Chinese officials, including former President Jiang Zemin, have invoked Lincoln before, but usually in the context of unification with Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own territory.
Qin's apparently unscripted remarks were the first known instance of using Lincoln in reference to Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
China routinely excoriates the revered Buddhist figure as a scourge on his people and says his ultimate goal is to overthrow Chinese rule and restore the former feudal theocracy.
Beijing often protests his travel abroad and his meetings with heads of state. This week, the spiritual leader visited a region of India near the Tibetan border, drawing a sharp rebuke from China.
Obama was criticized for not meeting the Dalai Lama when the spiritual leader was in Washington in October, but there is a possibility the two will meet in the future.
Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.