(Refiles to add name of human rights official in 4th par)
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING, April 7 (Reuters) - China’s high-pitched response to unrest across Tibet has muffled questions at home about policy missteps but is entrenching hardline positions likely to cramp room for flexibility in the region long after the Olympics.
Chinese popular opinion has strongly backed the government’s claims that followers of the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, planned the bloodshed and unrest from mid-March to disrupt the Beijing Olympics in August.
Officials now brand the Dalai Lama a murderous criminal, a terrorist and worse, but Premier Wen Jiabao recently repeated his government’s position that it is open to possible dialogue.
Communist Party security and propaganda chiefs seem to have grabbed hold of policy, says Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group critical of Chinese controls in Tibet.
Only months before the Beijing Games, China’s leaders have appeared to the world angry and threatened, dressed metaphorically in army greens rather than the business suits they like to wear. Hardly what their Games PR advisers planned.
Tibet’s Communist Party chief, Zhang Qingli, has emerged as the loudest advocate of state policy, vowing more of the same tough policies he pushed before the turbulence.
After the outbreak of protests, he rained comic-book insults on the Dalai Lama. A "jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes" and a demonic "spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast" were among them.
But by applying a political bludgeon rather than a scalpel to the tense region, Beijing is risking longer-term hazards.
"Even if you blame the Dalai for separatism, slogans can’t be a substitute for policy," said Guan Anping, a Beijing lawyer who formerly advised the government. "The politicization and propaganda are leaving deeper problems to pile up unaddressed."
SILENCE AND STRIDENCY
China’s Communist Party leaders, secretive at best, have been especially quiet about how they crafted a response to the riots and protests across Tibet and nearby provinces from mid-March.
The exception was Premier Wen Jiabao who on March 18 spoke on the unrest at an annual press conference scheduled long before. President Hu Jintao has kept mum, perhaps wary of yoking himself to such a messy business so close to the Beijing Games.
Regional Party boss Zhang’s own prospects depend on swiping aside questions whether he and security forces could have better anticipated and handled the worst unrest.
Yet it was on his watch that the worst instability in Tibet since at least 1989 erupted, raising questions about the wisdom of his administration’s approach, preparedness and response.
With no prior experience there, Zhang took over as its top Party official in late 2005 after rising in restive, largely Muslim Xinjiang, where security tended to be even tougher.
"Zhang Qingli has been stepping up his anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric since he came in," said Andrew Fischer, a Tibet expert at the London School of Economics.
"To a certain extent, I think he’s seriously culpable for turning up the pressure in the wrong direction."
Having promoted Zhang, President Hu is unlikely to dismiss him any time soon, fearing that doing so would be a dangerous show of weakness to critics and Tibetans, Fischer said.
That will make any serious self-examination of policy in Tibet all the more difficult.
"The Party leadership seems to see the Tibet situation as a direct challenge to itself, and in its response some of the usual bureaucratic processes seem to have been short-circuited," said Human Rights Watch’s Bequelin.
"When the Party sets in motion something like this, the consequences are going to last a few years," he said.
China’s internal political shackles have been made tighter by diplomatic tensions over Tibet that threaten to sully the Beijing Olympics. The Games are supposed to be a watershed show of patriotic pride for the nation.
Chinese Internet sites have ignited with angrily nationalist comments aimed at Western news reports and supporters of Tibetan independence critical of the Games. Such angry citizens will not welcome any compromise soon with the Dalai Lama.
"To a certain extent, Beijing is reaping what it sowed by making nationalism a basis for legitimacy," said Allen Carlson of Cornell University, who has studied Chinese policy on Tibet.
"For a leadership that values realpolitik, this creates real complications." (Editing by Nick Macfie and Michael Perry)