The Milan city council bestowed honorary citizenship on the Dalai Lama on Thursday over the objections of Chinese Embassy, which said the gesture would have a negative impact on bilateral relations and regional cooperation.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate accepted the honor inside a theater at the University of Milan-Bicocca campus before an audience of mostly students.
“I want to know what my right is, and what is my duty,” the Dalai Lama said, getting a laugh when he quipped that he preferred rights to duties.
On the eve of his arrival, the Chinese embassy in Rome issued a statement saying that honoring the Dalai Lama “has seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people” and expressing its “strong protest and firm opposition.”
Outside the theater, several dozen Chinese residents voiced their displeasure with the award, saying it was a slap at their contributions to the Italian economy. They waved Italian and Chinese flags, and stood behind banners proclaiming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
Tensions arose when a handful of Tibetan protesters approached the Chinese contingent, but police separated the two groups without incident, the news agency ANSA reported.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of leading a campaign to split Tibet from the rest of China. The exiled spiritual leader says he simply wants Tibet to have a higher degree of autonomy under Chinese rule.
Italy has been the favorite country in Europe for Chinese firms looking for acquisitions. Chinese firms bought 14 Italian companies last year for a combined total of $10.6 billion, according to KPMG, led by the $7.7 billion acquisition of tire maker Pirelli.
China has also invested billions in Italian electrical grid operators, carmakers, telecom firms and luxury brands in recent years.
In Milan alone, the number of Chinese residents has doubled over the past decade to nearly 29,000, doubling also the number of businesses, according to Francesco Wu, who leads an organization of Chinese entrepreneurs in Milan and joined Thursday’s protest.
The Dalai Lama also met privately with the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, as well as with Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala on the first day of a three-day visit that includes a series of spiritual talks.
He also is to receive honorary citizenship of the Milan suburb of Rho, home to the fairgrounds where several of his talks will take place.
In Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters that China opposes any official meeting with the Dalai Lama and asked that countries respect “China’s grave concerns.”
The Dalai Lama said in an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica that the climate in Tibet “remains extremely grim and repressive, characterized by constant controls of Tibetans, who are denied many basic human rights.”
“Whether they admit it or not, Tibet remains a thorn for China, which wants to play an important role in the world,” he was quoted as saying.