By Peter Harmsen
BEIJING - China's warnings of a series of sinister Tibetan and Muslim threats could be part of a campaign to silence all manner of dissent ahead of the Olympics, rights groups and activists say.
In recent days, authorities said they foiled a planned attack by "terrorists" in China's Muslim-populated Xinjiang on the August Olympics in Beijing, as well as an attempt to hijack and crash a plane from the region.
They also said "forceful and resolute" measures had been taken to quell "separatist" forces in the Buddhist region of Tibet, reasserting that exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama was a prime culprit in the movement.
Phelim Kine, Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the warnings were a sign of China's jitters ahead of the Games about all sources of dissent, not just from Tibetans or the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
"We're concerned that the Chinese government may use these alleged terrorist plots as a pretext for a new campaign of repression against the Uighur population in Xinjiang and to stifle any public expressions of dissent in Xinjiang ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games," Kine said.
"It's fair to say the Chinese government is extremely concerned about potentially embarrassing protests or expressions of dissent from any number of marginalised groups in society," he said.
"(This is the case) whether they are Xinjiang Uighurs, whether they are Tibetans, whether they are Mongolians or representatives of underground Christian churches."
Indeed, a wide range of groups aside from those in Xinjiang and Tibet have already sought to use the Olympics as a platform to highlight their causes and pressure the Chinese authorities, while promising protests during the Games.
Among the most prominent voices of dissent have been international organisations pushing China to use its influence with the government in Sudan to end the violence in its Darfur region.
Chinese dissidents have also boldly spoken out against what they say are widespread human rights abuses inside China, amid what they call a worsening crackdown by the country's communist rulers to silence them ahead of the Games.
Sun Wenguang, a well-known dissident academic from the east Chinese city of Jinan, said he was sceptical about the government's latest claims of a rising terrorist threat in Xinjiang or elsewhere.
"Now, the number of people who actively use violence is limited," said Sun.
"The authorities engineer public opinion in this way to make dissidents look bad."
A western observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the need to be able to travel to China, also said the government was using the alleged terrorist threat to justify a harder line.
"It's a crackdown intended to minimise the threat of an event during the Olympics that would gain international attention and reflect poorly on the (Communist) Party," he said.
James Millward of Georgetown University in the United States, who recently published a history of Xinjiang, where the Turkic-speaking Uighurs are the majority, said the latest claims by the government were slightly puzzling.
"The Xinjiang authorities are clearly engaged in making a public show of vigilance, of highlighting the danger over the last months or so," he said.
"We need to ask ourselves if this is an orchestrated publicity campaign, who is it being aimed at... is it meant to deter possible incidents? I don't know."
In regards to Tibet, one prominent critic said the Communist leadership had stepped up a campaign to vilify the Dalai Lama and other critics of Chinese rule ahead of the Games.
"There is no doubt at all that the Chinese government wishes part of its Olympic propaganda to present a misleading picture that Chinese rule in Tibet is accepted by the Tibetans," said Matt Whitticase, London-based spokesman for the Free Tibet Campaign.
"This is why they are cracking down very, very heavily indeed on any sign of Tibetan opposition to Chinese rule."