For Feinsteins, China's crackdown in Tibet is personal

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — For California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her husband, Richard Blum, the worsening Chinese crackdown on anti-government dissidents in Tibet is a horrific vision of their failed public and private diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Dalai Lama.

China blames the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader for violence that erupted March 14, the bloodiest conflict in Tibet in decades. A Communist Party official in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, was quoted Thursday as calling the Dalai Lama "a wolf in monk's robes, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast."

That's not the Dalai Lama that Feinstein and Blum, a wealthy international investor and Himalayan philanthropist, said they've come to know. Friends for 30 years, they say the Dalai Lama is a peacemaker who's trying to preserve the cultural and religious institutions of an estimated 6 million oppressed Tibetans.

"To look at him is to know peace," Feinstein said in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol last October when, through her efforts, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. "To listen to him is to know wisdom. To touch him is to feel the presence of something greater."

Now, with journalists expelled and Chinese troops spreading throughout Tibet, Feinstein and Blum said in separate telephone interviews that they have grave fears about what's coming.

"The Chinese are in a bunker mentality," Feinstein said. "It's needless. It's inhumane. It's wrong-headed. It need not be."

Blum said that with the Summer Olympics in China approaching and the world watching, his concerns stretch into the distant months.

"I'm concerned about reprisals when the Olympics are over," he said.

For two decades at least, Feinstein and Blum have been virtual ambassadors, shuttling between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government — Feinstein as a county supervisor, San Francisco mayor and then as California's powerful Democratic senator, and Blum as a wealthy international investor and mountain-climbing hobbyist.

Blum flies the Dalai Lama to the United States and around the country on his private jet. The spiritual leader makes appearances at annual fundraisers for Blum's American Himalayan Foundation, whose 170 projects Blum said include assistance to Tibetan refugees fleeing their Chinese-controlled homeland.

Blum, with growing investments in China, obtained the permits from Beijing for the first — and only — ascent of the east face of Mount Everest, in 1983. He wasn't on that climb but was part of an earlier 1981 expedition that had to turn back when the mountain seemed untamable.

The couple's connection to China has been controversial. When Feinstein was thinking about running for governor in 1997, critics cited a conflict of interest because of the appearance of Blum money mixing with Feinstein's official business. The couple vehemently denied any connection, but even now Blum says that his advocacy for the Tibetan leader hasn't tempered Chinese interest in his investments there.

Blum said he has had "hundreds of conversations" with Chinese leaders for over 25 years, trying to get them to sit down with the Dalai Lama. Three times in the 1990s, Feinstein and Blum carried personal letters from the Dalai Lama to China's president, Jiang Zemin, asking for a meeting.

Feinstein knew Jiang. They had been mayors of their respective sister cities, San Francisco and Shanghai. They felt there was rapport, maybe even hope. The Dalai Lama felt it, too.

"I have been often told by our good friends Mr. Richard Blum and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and others, that a meeting between you and me could make important progress in a relatively short period of time," the Dalai Lama said in a May 16, 1998, letter that the international power couple carried on his behalf to Jiang.

Ten years earlier, after tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to brutally quash a student pro-democracy demonstration, Blum said hope for the Dalai Lama's peace overtures with a hardening Beijing government began to flicker and dim. Now, they're extinguishing completely.

Feinstein said that she offered last year to trade away the Dalai Lama's Congressional Gold Medal, the highest form of recognition the Congress can bestow, for a meeting between him and the Chinese government.

"I was visited twice by the Chinese ambassador asking me not to do it," she said of her campaign for the gold medal. "I said I wouldn't do it if they would just sit down and meet with him. But no dice."

On Wednesday, Feinstein released a letter that the Dalai Lama wrote to her about the worsening Tibet situation.

"I am deeply saddened by what is happening in Tibet," he wrote. "I treasure my friendship with you and Richard Blum. I deeply appreciate your interest and support to the Tibetan cause at this most critical time."

Feinstein said the couple's failed efforts to help bridge the cultural divide between Buddhist Tibet and communist China has been frustrating and disappointing.

Blum said the Chinese have no one to blame but themselves for the deteriorating situation.

"It is enormously frustrating," Blum said. "There is nothing in my life where I have spent more effort — flown, talked, attended meetings in Beijing and everywhere else — and had so little to show for it."

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