How China Sees Its Ethnic Separatists Differently

Almost daily, China pillories him in the state-run press as a former ruler of one of the world's largest "slave" societies.

For decades, he has been branded a "political hooligan" who seeks to chop off part of China to recreate his own superstition-laden Buddhist fiefdom.

Yet for Beijing, the Dalai Lama serves a useful purpose. He keeps his former kingdom of Tibet relatively calm, albeit in exile.

Now, with trouble brewing in another western province, China may wonder if it needs another Dalai Lama-type of figure.

An explosion that rocked the capital last week may not only mark the escalation of protests by separatist Muslims in the province of Xinjiang, but also change Beijing's perception of the Dalai Lama.

Despite being denounced as a would-be leader of Tibet's secession from China, Tibet's spiritual leader is widely credited - even by liberals in the Chinese government - with minimizing violent protests in the Himalayan region.

The Tibetan Buddhist leader's pacifist stance was brought into sharp contrast by a series of terrorist bombs that went off in Xinjiang and the most recent one in Beijing.

Friday's bomb in Beijing injured at least 10 passengers on a bus that minutes later would have traveled past the congressional hall, where legislators have been discussing a new antiterrorism law. A group of radical Muslims that seeks autonomy for Xinjiang in remote northwestern China has since claimed responsibility for the attack.

A statement released by the group said that "similar bomb incidents will continue until Xinjiang achieves complete freedom." Already tight security in the Chinese capital has been strengthened, with heavy police patrols near Tiananmen Square and in the Muslim areas scattered around Beijing.

"Xinjiang's Muslims need someone like the Dalai Lama - a figure of international standing who could get their story out to the West," says a Western official in the Chinese capital.

"Without a world spokesman, some separatists in Xinjiang have resorted to using bombs to publicize their cause, but the governments and peoples of the West are not going to sympathize with terrorists," he says.

The group that claimed to have planted the Beijing bomb includes exiles from Xinjiang, which has been rocked by Communist Party-led clampdowns on religious and ethnic-inspired nationalism and by a sporadic antigovernment terrorist campaign.

Although Beijing has carried out a parallel crackdown in Tibet, most dissent there takes the form of Buddhist chants or whispered prayers for deliverance by the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for using nonviolent means to protect the people and customs of Tibet from what he terms "cultural genocide" at the hands of China.

"The Dalai Lama has threatened to resign [from the Tibetan government-in-exile] if any Tibetans, within or outside Tibet, use any violence to protest Chinese communist rule," says a young Tibetan here.

In contrast, three separate bombs exploded simultaneously in the capital of Xinjiang on Feb. 25, and were apparently timed to coincide with a state funeral for supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing.

The attacks succeeded in drawing world attention to the clash of civilizations between Xinjiang's Muslims and their ethnic Han Chinese rulers.

Beijing's ongoing moves to halt the building of new mosques and religious schools, along with the mass migration of Han Chinese into the "New Frontier," as Xinjiang is called, are deepening interethnic conflicts.

"These were not isolated or spontaneous events," said the Western official, "but part of longstanding tensions that from time to time erupt in clashes."

The Red Army's march into Xinjiang in 1949 ended the short-lived Republic of East Turkestan, and the Communist Party oversaw the execution of Muslim clerics and destruction of mosque in a bid to extinguish the embers of nationalism, .

Similar policies were enforced after the Chinese Army crossed into Tibet in 1950 and deposed the 15-year-old Dalai Lama as head of the Himalayan kingdom's Buddhist theocracy.

Beijing attacked Tibet's rigid social pyramid, with priests at its pinnacle and serfs at its base, in order to "liberate the peasants." The Dalai Lama initially cooperated with Beijing to mediate the harshness of communist rule, but fled into exile in 1959 after reports that the Chinese Army planned to assassinate him.

Mao Zedong's death in 1976 saw the partial liberalization of the party's rule, but also unleashed demonstrations for greater autonomy by Tibet's Buddhists and Xinjiang's Muslims.

"The Dalai Lama has succeeded in uniting Tibetans behind his calls for a peaceful dialogue on Tibet's future, but no similar figure has emerged in Xinjiang," says Dru Gladney, a senior researcher at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

"Many people in Xinjiang are fed up with the government's religious and economic policies, but most do not support the killing of innocent Chinese to vent that anger," says a young Muslim migrant from the region who now lives in Beijing.

"Chinese atheists are in control of our mosques, and that causes widespread resentment in Xinjiang," he adds. "The Chinese say we must learn their language if we want to get a job; every day they carry train-loads of Xinjiang's oil out of the region and put nothing back in."

"If Xinjiang had someone like the Dalai Lama, we could try to protect our religion, our economic rights, and our culture through talks with the government," says the youth. "But until now, no one in Beijing has heard our calls for change."

Following reports of massive troop movements into Xinjiang, the Dalai Lama this week warned Beijing that the use of the Army to crush Muslim nationalism could trigger more violent protests.

He told the India-based Hindustan Times that "the military clampdown on Xinjiang and Tibet will never ... suppress the people's urge for freedom."

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