South Africa is stalling on whether to allow the Dalai Lama to attend his friend the Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday party next week, sparking concerns that China may be ramping up pressure on the country to refuse the Tibetan spiritual leader a visa.
The Dalai Lama first tried to apply for a South African visa months ago, requesting to attend Tutu's Oct. 7 party, but Pretoria has yet to decide whether to grant the Nobel Peace Laureate entry. The South African government banned the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates' peace conference in 2009.
China, which is South Africa's largest trading partner, reacts angrily to countries that allow the Dalai Lama entry and grant him meetings with high-level officials.
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"China's position of opposing the Dalai Lama visiting any country with ties to China is clear and consistent," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news conference in Beijing, the Associated Press reports. Hong would not say if China has discussed the trip with South Africa.
On Monday, South African deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe began a four-day visit to China, where he is scheduled to meet with Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping.
Xi, who is widely expected to be China's next leader, has taken a hard-line stance towards Tibet, in a recent speech vowing to "smash" Tibetan separatist forces he said were linked to the Dalai Lama.
The AP says there are fears in South Africa that Chinese pressure may be "trumping the country's much-vaunted policies on freedom of speech and human rights."
According to the AP:
South African newspapers are already drawing parallels between the situations of Tibetans under Chinese rule and black South Africans under the racist apartheid regime that ended in 1994. The tensions over the Dalai Lama's visa application also are a sign of how powerful China's influence has grown in Africa.
China says Tibet has always been part of its territory, but many Tibetans argue the region was virtually independent for centuries, and accuse Beijing of suppressing their religion and culture. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since 1959 after fleeing a failed uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet.
"Our leadership has a clear choice: to look deep into the African soul and emulate [Nelson] Mandela's actions by extending a hand of friendship, while at the same time understanding that it won't, in fact, have any real impact on our relations with China," said an opinion piece in South Africa's Daily Maverick.
"Or, once again to yield as the people who will submit to the will of another nation, to constrict our spirit and our standing as a moral society, and close our doors on a genuine man of peace and the justified hopes of his people."
The Dalai Lama is scheduled to deliver the inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace lecture, titled "Peace and compassion as catalyst for change," as part of the Oct. 6-8 birthday celebrations for Tutu.
The Dalai Lama first visited South Africa in 1996, where he spent time with Nelson Mandela, the country's first democratically elected president.
Pretoria-Beijing relations have grown closer under President Jacob Zuma, with South Africa exporting about $5.5 billion a year in minerals to China, Reuters reports. Last year China invited South Africa to join the BRIC grouping of key emerging economies.
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International Relations spokesman Clayson Monyela has denied that China is exerting "undue" pressure on South Africa to refuse the Dalai Lama a visa, Business Day reports.
"It’s absolutely not true China is pressurizing us not to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama. He [the Dalai Lama] will not come up during the discussions [by Motlanthe] as this is a private matter which is being subjected to the normal immigration procedures," Monyela said.