WASHINGTON -- The Dalai Lama called China a "great nation" but criticized its governmental system as "harmful" during an address Friday at Washington's National Cathedral

The Buddhist spiritual leader said that Tibetans are willing to remain part of China, though with greater autonomy to preserve their culture and environment.

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders have welcomed the Nobel laureate during his U.S. visit, angering Beijing which regards him as an anti-Chinese separatist.

Asked Friday why China's government was upset by his activities, the Dalai Lama responded bluntly: "Ask them."

He referred to China, the world's most populous country, as a "great nation" but said a number of its people want more freedom and transparency. He also criticized China's system as unfair to the poor and harmful to individual creativity.

It's in the Chinese government's own interest to allow more transparency, as it would cultivate trust and respect from others, the Dalai Lama said.

He said that a number of Chinese people fully support and are "showing solidarity" with Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama, who fled China for northern India in 1959, formally relinquished his political role in 2011, giving way to the elected prime minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, but he remains the international face of its nonviolent struggle.

Tibetan rights groups say more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the past four years to protest authoritarian China's heavy-handed rule in the Himalayan regions. The Dalai Lama has said he doesn't encourage the self-immolations.

In Beijing on Friday, China's Foreign Ministry expressed dissatisfaction with the Dalai Lama's meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill the previous day, when he opened the Senate session with a prayer and met House and Senate leaders.

Spokesman Qin Gang urged Congress "to stop conniving with or even supporting anti-China secessionist activities," the state Xinhua news agency reported.