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Unrest among Chinas Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists creates challenges for Beijing
APTOPIX China Tibet 5514972
Young Tibetan monks debate over Buddhist philosophy at the Nanwu temple in Kangding, west of Sichuan province, China, Wednesday, April 2, 2008. New separatist unrest has been reported among a Muslim minority group in far western China, even as Beijing seeks to control fallout from major anti-government protests in Tibet. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIJING — Unrest was reported Wednesday among Muslims in far western China, a headache for Beijing as it tries to squelch Tibetan protests and another sign that neither investment nor repression has ended anti-government feeling in the hinterlands.
    The protests in Xinjiang create new problems for Beijing as it tries to contain demonstrations while fending off criticism of its treatment of minorities ahead of this summer’s Beijing Olympics.
    Meanwhile, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Beijing since a deadly March 14 anti-government riot in the Tibetan capital, said he appealed to Chinese leaders to engage their critics.
    ‘‘I expressed our concerns about the violence and urged a peaceful resolution through dialogue,’’ Paulson said. He declined to specify to which officials he made the appeal.
    The reports about the latest unrest in Xinjiang described disturbances last month at a bazaar in the city of Hotan, deep in the Muslim Uighur minority’s cultural heartland.
    A local government statement said a ‘‘tiny number of people’’ tried to create an incident March 23 ‘‘under the flag of separatism.’’ A local government spokesman blamed the protest on Uighur separatists whom he accused of seizing on the Tibet unrest to call attention to their independence cause.
    ‘‘These people are splittists responding to the Tibetan riots,’’ the spokesman, Fu Chao, said. He said dozens were arrested, but only the ‘‘core splittists’’ remained in custody.
    U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia and an overseas Uighur activist reported earlier that the demonstrators were demanding the right for Uighur women to wear head scarves and the release of political prisoners.
    The rare official confirmation of the Xinjiang protest appeared to signal the government’s sensitivity to unrest, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
    ‘‘It was out already, so they were forced to react rapidly,’’ he said.
    Linking the protesters to events in Tibet was a way of portraying them as opportunistic and thereby undermining any real grievances, he said.
    Faced with local opposition, China has employed the twin policies of economic development and repression in both Xinjiang and Tibet, believing that would win over the masses while crushing dissent.
    Opposition has continued, however, mainly peacefully in Tibet, but sometimes accompanied by violence in Xinjiang; authorities this year claimed to have foiled a Uighur terror plot targeting the Olympics and an attempt to crash a commercial airliner.
    The incident in Hotan came nine days after the deadly rioting in Lhasa set off the largest and most sustained wave of protests in Tibetan areas of western China in almost two decades.
    China accuses supporters of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of orchestrating the violence and planning future attacks by ‘‘suicide squads.’’ The Dalai Lama has denied any links to the violence and urged an independent inquiry into the unrest — something China has repeatedly ruled out.
    Many Tibetans insist they were an independent nation before communist troops invaded in 1950, while radical Islamic groups in Xinjiang have battled Chinese rule through a low-intensity campaign of bombings and assassination.
    Uighurs, pronounced ‘‘Wee-gers,’’ are a Central Asian people related to Turks whose language, customs and religion are distinct from those of most Chinese.
    Beijing has pumped billions of dollars in aid and investment into the regions in hope that economic development would squelch anti-communist sentiment.
    Yet intense police and army repression may have undermined such gains, with Tibetans and Uighurs complaining of restrictions on religion, economic disenfranchisement and the watering down of their culture and language.