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Dalai Lama goes to Taiwan in trip denounced by China

The scene Saturday at the airport in this southern Taiwanese port city must rank among China's worst nightmares: the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan "god-king" denounced for trying to "split the motherland," landing on the shores of this breakaway island accused of plotting its own move toward independence.

Outside the airport terminal there was a boisterous display of the kind of street democracy still unheard of in Communist-controlled China. Tibetans and Taiwanese called for independence and denounced Beijing. Human rights advocates handed out brochures challenging China's record on political repression. Occasional scuffles broke out between separatists and smaller groups calling for China to remain unified.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's Buddhist spiritual leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has insisted his six-day trip to Taiwan _ which Beijing views as a renegade province _ is purely religious in nature.

China, which has occupied Tibet since invading it in 1950 and also claims sovereignty over Taiwan, lashed out at the visit, with the official People's Daily calling it "a political crusade upheld by splittist and Tibetan independence forces collaborating within Taiwan to split the motherland."

It is the Dalai Lama's first trip to Taiwan, and he is being feted with all the red-carpet treatment normally accorded a head of state. If Taiwan is considered a part of China _ and the rival governments on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait agree it is _ then Saturday also marked the first time he set foot on Chinese soil since he and thousands of followers fled their Himalayan homeland into exile in 1959.

In his arrival statement, the Dalai Lama tried to stress the spiritual, non-political nature of his visit. He talked about human values and the need to maintain spiritual harmony amid breakneck economic development. He modestly spoke of himself as "just another human being" and declined to address whether his presence is likely to further enrage China.

But he did say he is looking forward to meeting Taiwan's first democratically elected president, Lee Teng Hui, who, like the Dalai Lama, has been accused in official Chinese rhetoric of being a "splittist" out to divide China.

"Of course I'm looking forward to seeing your president, Lee Teng Hui," the Dalai Lama said, speaking slowly and deliberately in English. "Of course I always keep in my mind my activities . . . should not cause embarrassment to anybody. But the president seems willing to see me, so I am honored." The meeting with Lee is expected to take place Thursday and is likely to infuriate China's rulers.

The Dalai Lama has canceled a planned speech this week to Taiwan's democratically elected legislature, apparently to avoid causing further trouble with Beijing. A spokesman was quoted as saying the speech was scrapped because of the spiritual leader's strong desire "not to cause any inconvenience or embarrassment to the host government."

After his brief airport statement, the ocher-robed Dalai Lama was driven through flag-draped streets to his hotel and then to southern Taiwan's famed Fokuangshan temple. During his visit, he will hold a series of prayer meetings at stadiums.

If he and his backers were attempting to play down the political symbolism of this trip, the word apparently did not reach the hundreds who came here by the bus load, carrying banners and signs denouncing China and proclaiming independence for both Tibet and Taiwan.

Members of Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party were out in force, with their green-and-white flag and a banner reading, "We support an independent Taiwan and Tibet."

Tibetans also turned out in large numbers, with Buddhist nuns in yellow robes and others in traditional Tibetan costume. They held signs with slogans such as "Tibet Is Free!"