An upsurge of pro-independence violence in Xinjiang and Tibet, China's two troubled frontiers, is rattling Beijing.
Worried about controlling these ethnically diverse border provinces, China is flexing its muscles, launching massive propaganda efforts to reinforce its authority in the remote areas.
In Xinjiang, China's westernmost province and home to the restive Uighur Muslim minority, the government struggles to suppress unrest and halt the flow of arms across the border from Islamic Central Asia. Resentment against China centers on the government's exploitation of potential oil and other resources, use of Xinjiang's desert as a nuclear testing ground, and resettlement of millions of majority Han Chinese to the province.
In April, nine people armed with guns and homemade bombs were killed by police in a clash in the Kuqa district. In recent weeks, Xinjiang has been wracked by a series of political assassinations and bomb threats. Uighur leaders outside China contend that at least 20 people have died in separatist fighting.
Although Western experts doubt that the desert region would ever split from China, the unrest could reignite centuries-old ethnic feuds.
"People in the oases have never lived in peace. The people have lived in internecine bloodshed, and this could happen again if the Chinese ever lose power," says Justin Rudelson, an expert on Xinjiang at Tulane University in New Orleans. "This is another potential Yugoslavia."
Meanwhile, in Tibet, unrest has erupted over a government campaign to remove portraits of the Dalai Lama, the region's exiled spiritual leader, to reduce his influence.
For the last year, Beijing has been on the attack against the Dalai Lama, who preempted Communist authorities from exile in India by recognizing a young boy as the new Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-most-powerful Buddhist monk. In a move to strengthen its harsh rule in the region, the Chinese government installed its own Panchen Lama and reportedly detained the Dalai Lama's choice and the boy's family.
Since the ban on display of the Dalai Lama's likeness, security forces have fought, beaten, and imprisoned dozens of monks, sealed off monasteries, and injured dozens of protesters, according to the London-based Tibet Information Network, a monitor of dissidents and human rights abuses in Tibet. In house-to-house searches, authorities have met resistance from Tibetans who refuse to remove photographs of the Dalai Lama.
The government says the Himalayan region has been hit by a campaign of "terrorist" bombings, which doubled in number last year, according to accounts in the Chinese press.
This week, government-run Tibet television reported six Tibetan activists were jailed for up to five years. "In this battle, we must strike at the head, ferociously attack the chief of the Tibetan independent splittist group, this tool of the international anti-China forces," the official Tibet Daily newspaper stated.
"They are trying to find a way to control non-Chinese nationalism in Xinjiang and Tibet. They are trying every method to crack this nut," said Robert Barnett of the Tibet Information Network in a telephone interview. "This is the least subtle of everything that they have tried. Ideologically, they are taking a very crude approach."
Western diplomats say that Beijing is showing an extremism in actions and rhetoric that signals frustration in containing ethnic and religious strife. Last month, the government launched a "Strike Hard" crackdown on separatists and criminals.
In a new propaganda broadside, a recent edition of Xinjiang Daily called for erecting a "Great Wall of Steel" against Muslim separatists and carried photographs of armed and helmeted police enforcing the crackdown.
Since February, independence activists have staged five violent attacks, killing two policemen and a pro-Chinese religious figure, the newspaper said.
It urged China to "concentrate our forces to form a fist to frighten the small number of splittists and various serious criminals and smash their plots to disrupt stability and create splittism."
Says a Western diplomat in Beijing: "They are unnerved by the violence and would like to end it once and for all as part of Strike Hard." But "that's just not possible."