China says countering Dalai Lama is top ethnic priority in Tibet

September 30, 2016 12:37 AM EDT

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama gestures as he gives a public religious lecture to the faithful in Strasbourg, France, September 17, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China will make countering the Dalai Lama's influence the "highest priority" in its work on ethnic affairs in Tibet, the region's Communist Party boss has said, vowing to uproot the monk's "separatist and subversive" activities.

Beijing says its Communist troops peacefully liberated Tibet in 1950 and regards the 80-year-old, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Buddhist monk as a separatist.

The self-exiled Dalai Lama says he merely seeks genuine autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.

China's Foreign Ministry expressed anger and threatened countermeasures this month after the Tibetan spiritual leader spoke at the European Parliament in France.

"First, we must deepen the struggle against the Dalai Lama clique, make it the highest priority in carrying out our ethnic affairs, and the long-term mission of strengthening ethnic unity," Tibet party secretary Wu Yingjie said in a speech published on Friday in the official Tibet Daily.

"(We must) thoroughly expose the reactionary nature of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, crack down on separatist and subversive activities, and strive to eliminate at their roots harmful elements that damage ethnic unity," Wu said.

Public veneration of the Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, is prohibited in Tibet, though in private, many Tibetans revere the monk and display his picture.

Identifying the effort to crack down on his influence the top task in the region's ethnic affairs suggests Wu will ratchet up the government's already hardline approach in the devoutly Buddhist region, which is prone to anti-Chinese unrest.

Wu was appointed Tibet's top official in late August, and has vowed stronger criticism of the Dalai Lama.

The government rejects criticism from rights groups and exiles who accuse it of trampling on the religious and cultural rights of the Tibetan people, saying instead that its rule has brought prosperity to a once-backward region.

Nonetheless, China faces no shortage of problems in the region, including those stemming from poverty, language barriers, and development that has at times clashed with a traditional herding lifestyle.

Tibetans, one of China's 56 officially recognized minority groups, are guaranteed legal protection for their languages and cultures. But they are often marginalized and treated with suspicion by Beijing, which views them as potential separatists.

Officials see ethnic affairs work, such as improving Mandarin proficiency among minorities, as key to ensuring national cohesion and creating economic opportunity.

There has been resistance to greater Mandarin education in schools in Tibet, with people fearing the government wants to culturally assimilate them. The government denies that.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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