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China's premier says Dalai Lama threatens national unity

BEIJING—China's Premier Wen Jiabao on Friday repeated claims that the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, threatens the unity of the nation and may be trying to separate his Himalayan homeland from China.

Surveying the situation in crucial outlying regions within China's sphere, Wen also criticized what he called the "plots taken by secessionist forces" in Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China claims, and praised Hong Kong for having the "freest economy in the world."

Wen's remarks came in an annual news conference that's the only chance for journalists to question China's senior leadership.

Speaking for two hours from a rostrum bedecked with flowers, Wen discounted any chance that he would meet with the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, unless the Dalai Lama categorically accepted China's dominance of Tibet.

Wen called on the Dalai Lama, who heads a government-in-exile in a hilltop town in India, to state publicly that Tibet "is an inalienable part of China's territory" and make a similar statement on Taiwan. Once that occurs, "we are willing to have consultations with the Dalai Lama on his personal future," he said.

But Wen said that the Dalai Lama advocates "a so-called high degree of autonomy for Tibet," which he indicated was unrealistic.

"In his request, he actually asked for all the Chinese troops to withdraw from Tibet and he even asked for all the Han people to leave Tibet," Wen said. "From all he has said, it is very easy for us to see whether he is genuinely working for a unified country or whether he is trying to sabotage or undermine the unity of the country."

Chinese troops marched into remote Tibet in the 1950s, and the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959. In recent years, he's affirmed that he wants autonomy for Tibet, not independence, but China doesn't believe him.

China finished a 715-mile railway linking the nation to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, last July. Last week, the Dalai Lama said Han Chinese, who make up 93 percent of China's vast population, are flooding into Tibet.

"It is a source of deep concern that ever since the railway line became operational, Tibet has seen a further increase in Chinese population transfer," he said.

The Tibet government-in-exile contended in a statement on Thursday that thousands of Chinese fortune-seekers and laborers arrive daily by rail to Lhasa. The population of Lhasa, which stood at 20,000 people in 1950, is climbing toward 300,000 people, and Beijing has a target of letting it grow to 700,000, the statement said.

Envoys of the Dalai Lama and Beijing have held five rounds of talks since 2002, when contacts were renewed after two decades. But talks stalled in February 2006.

"The Chinese government has ramped up negative rhetoric and there are no indications from Beijing that they are prepared to engage on issues of concern to us or the international community," Paula J. Dobriansky, the State Department envoy on Tibetan issues, told a House panel in Washington Tuesday.

Now age 71, the Dalai Lama is entering a twilight as an active leader, and some scholars worry that his passing could unleash more confrontational approaches.

Dobriansky said China should speak directly to the Dalai Lama.

"It is in China's self-interest to defuse tensions in Tibet by moderating (its) repressive and assimilationist policies, by substantively engaging the Dalai Lama or his representatives, and by inviting the Dalai Lama to China," she said.

Wen called the upcoming year a crucial one for Taiwan Strait relations, noting that the island has elections next year to replace President Chen Shui-bian, who has inched Taiwan toward outright independence.

"We are closely watching the various actions and plots taken by the secessionist forces in Taiwan on the road toward seeking independence," Wen said, warning that China would never allow Taiwan to take such action.

Wen hailed the decade since Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule as "an extraordinary period" with new prosperity for Hong Kong people.

Perhaps in an oblique reference to the rise of Shanghai, a port that's challenging Hong Kong's role as an East Asian financial center, Wen said: "Hong Kong's role as an international financial center, shipping center and trade center cannot be replaced by any other city."

Beijing has declined to set a timetable for direct elections for Hong Kong's chief executive. In a small step forward, on March 25 an elite 800-member election committee will choose between a pro-democracy lawmaker and the Beijing-backed incumbent, who's seeking a new term.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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