26, Jan, 2012

BEIJING—Security forces in a restive Tibetan region of China killed a second person in as many days, according to state-run media, amid intensifying riots and growing international criticism that threatens to cast a shadow over a landmark visit to the U.S. next month by Vice President Xi Jinping.

The state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Wednesday that police opened fire on rioters in Seda county in China’s western Sichuan province on Tuesday. The county is in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which has become a hot spot of Tibetan political activism and the site of protests and multiple self-immolations by ethnic Tibetans in recent months.

Xinhua quoted local police on Wednesday as saying rioters attacked a police station with stones, knives and gasoline bottles Tuesday afternoon, and that 14 police were injured. The London-based advocacy group Free Tibet said at least two Tibetans were killed in the incident and others were injured.

The accounts couldn’t be verified with residents in Seda on Wednesday. Officials from the Foreign Ministry in Beijing couldn’t be reached to comment. Government offices were closed for the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday.

The clash followed a similar incident on Monday in Luhuo county, also in the Ganzi prefecture. In that case, officials confirmed one person was killed after a mob stormed local shops and a bank and damaged police vehicles, though they didn’t say how the person died. Free Tibet said two protesters were shot and killed in Monday’s incident, among at least 36 people shot by security forces.

The violent clashes with police come as a wave of self-immolations by Tibetans puts the region on edge. At least 16 people have set themselves on fire since March 2011 in what Tibetans have described as a response to heightened government repression of Tibetan Buddhist monastic activities and an expression of growing desperation over Tibetan political and cultural autonomy. The self-immolations and clashes with security forces represent the region’s worst violence since deadly riots rocked a number of locations, including the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, in 2008.

In Washington on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department’s special coordinator for Tibet issues, Maria Otero, criticized what she called Beijing’s “counterproductive policies” in the region. “I am gravely concerned by reports of violence and continuing heightened tensions in Tibetan areas of China,” Ms. Otero said in a statement. “We call on the Chinese government to resume substantive, results-oriented dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives to address the underlying grievances of China’s Tibetan population.”

Separately, a State Department spokeswoman said Tuesday that the U.S. would raise the issue of human rights in Tibet and elsewhere in China during the visit next month by Mr. Xi, the Chinese vice president. Mr. Xi is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as president in a leadership change beginning late this year, and his visit to Washington will be a rare opportunity for U.S. officials to learn more about him.

While Beijing may expect some prodding on the Tibet issue during the visit, the fear among Chinese leaders likely centers on the possibility that Tibet-focused demonstrations in Washington will greet Mr. Xi, which would ruin the decorum around the important visit that China is aiming for.

China has long deflected U.S. criticism on Tibet, its sovereignty of which it considers one of its “core interests.” Mr. Hu is widely seen as a Tibet hard-liner; in 1989, as party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region, he imposed martial law to suppress rioting.

It’s unclear how forcefully U.S. officials will press Beijing’s presumed future leader. In a speech last summer, Mr. Xi reiterated the party’s longstanding view that Tibet provides China a critical “national-security screen”—its mountains serving as a buffer between China and regional rival India—and stressed the importance of economic development as a means of maintaining stability in the region.

Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, called for greater international attention on religious and cultural restrictions in the Tibetan-populated regions of China’s west.

“It is high time for [the international community] to intervene to prevent further bloodshed,” Mr. Sangay said in a statement. “As a nation aspiring to become a world economic and political power, the People’s Republic of China cannot be permitted to behave in such [an] immoral and violent manner.”

China says that Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries and that living standards there have improved drastically since Communist forces took control of the region in 1951. But Beijing has struggled to suppress calls for greater cultural and religious freedom, or loyalty to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, who fled to India in 1959.

Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a revolutionary hero who went on to serve as vice premier and is widely believed to have had good relations with the 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989 and at times was considered close to Beijing. Panchen Lamas are the second-highest figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

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