BEIJING — The conviction was clear but the message befuddling: China's Foreign Ministry spokesman was equating serfdom in Tibet to slavery in the U.S. – just ahead of President Barack Obama's first trip to China.
Was it a monumental gaffe, last-minute stab at finding a common frame of reference, or a canny piece of strategy designed to redefine the U.S.-China dispute over Tibet?
Whatever the motivation or intended effect, the response so far probably won't be to Beijing's liking. Among academics, activists and commentators, the remarks have been labeled illogical, ignorant, and even insensitive.
Ministry spokesman Qin Gang's argument broke down like this: Obama, as the first black U.S. president and an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, should appreciate the importance of liberating slaves – exactly what China says it did in Tibet in 1959.
"We hope that President Obama, more than any other foreign dignitary, can have a better and deeper understanding of China's position regarding safeguarding its national sovereignty and territorial integrity," Qin said.
Such reasoning struck some as patently offensive to Obama for linking his policy decisions to the color of his skin, and to Tibetans, who revere the Dalai Lama as part of their Buddhist faith.
"It is an insult for the unelected and authoritarian Chinese government to suggest that an instinctive democrat such as Abraham Lincoln would have sided with China in seeking to deny the Tibetan people their fundamental right to determine their own future," said Stephanie Brigden, director of the Free Tibet campaign.
White House officials when asked on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore for a response to Qin's statement had no comment.
To be sure, Qin's words underscored the huge gulf in perception between China and the West over Tibet and its exiled Buddhist leader.
China views Tibet, which communist troops entered in 1950, as inherently part of its territory and key symbol of Chinese sovereignty and independence.
Many Tibetans and their supporters in the West say Tibet was effectively independent for most of its history and regard Chinese rule as occupation for the sake of economic exploitation.
The divide is even more bitter regarding the Dalai Lama himself.
To Western eyes, he is a spiritual leader who works tirelessly promoting rights and freedoms for Tibetans and who has promoted democratic, not feudal, values as leader of the self-proclaimed Tibetan government-in-exile in India since fleeing there in 1959. The Dalai Lama says he seeks only meaningful autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule, not independence.
To China, he is a former slave master, covert secessionist and general evildoer. Such sentiments have only hardened in the wake of anti-government riots in Tibet last year that left at least 22 dead.
"The Dalai Lama was the overall leader of the Tibetan serf system in 1959, and when the Chinese government abolished that system it marked a tremendous step forward for the cause of human rights," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin told reporters on Thursday. "In the same way, President Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States."
Qin was simply trying to use an historical analogy that would be familiar to nearly every American and that should carry particular resonance for Obama, said Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University.
"I am kind of supporting Qin Gang," said Shen. "The West has been accustomed to listening to the Dalai Lama's argument and they do not care to listen to our argument."
However, Robbie Barnett, director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University, said he sees Qin's comparison less as a conciliatory gesture and more as an attempt to reframe the issue on China's terms. Beijing wants Americans to see Tibet through the lens of their own history and come to think of Tibet as a region of China with troubled, racially tinged history, and not a region that is seeking or might deserve greater autonomy.
"They want the Americans to start referring to the Tibetan issue as an ethnic problem because Chinese see ethnic issues as common to almost all countries," he said.