BEIJING — French President Nicholas Sarkozy stepped up the pressure on China Saturday over its handling of the Tibet crisis by warning he may boycott the Olympic opening, following fresh violence.
Sarkozy’s warning, delivered by one of his ministers in the Le Monde newspaper, also came shortly after China said it would step up a controversial "education" campaign for Tibetans in an effort to end nearly a month of unrest.
Sarkozy will only attend the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony if China opens dialogue with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and frees political prisoners, French Secretary of State for Human Rights Rama Yade said.
China must also end the "violence" against Tibetans, Yade told Le Monde, saying all three conditions were "indispensable" if he was to be at the opening ceremony in August 8.
His comments were among the sharpest by a world leader over China’s crackdown on what has become the biggest challenge to its rule of the remote Himalayan region in decades.
Protests that began on March 10 in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, escalated into rioting and then spread to other areas of western China with Tibetan populations.
China says Tibetan rioters have killed 20 people. But Tibetan exiled groups say 135-140 people have been killed in the Chinese crackdown.
The death toll from the crackdown was before the latest outbreak of unrest, in southwest China’s Sichuan province in Thursday, that left eight Tibetans dead, according to activist groups and Tibetan exiles.
China’s communist rulers have been deeply angered and embarrassed over the Tibetan unrest, as it has overshadowed preparations for the Beijing Olympics and exposed other human rights issues.
Tibetans have been protesting over what they say has been widespread repression under nearly six decades of Chinese rule.
In Xinjiang, a Muslim-populated region of northwest China which neighbours Tibet, there have also been protests in recent days to express similar sentiments, although not on nearly the same scale as the Tibetan unrest.
The jailing of prominent Chinese dissident Hu Jia on Thursday for subversion added to concerns around the world that the human rights situation in China was getting worse instead of better ahead of the Games.
But China showed no signs of backing down on Saturday.
The state-run Tibet Daily quoted the region’s deputy Communist Party chief as telling a group of influential monks that "reinforcing patriotic education" was now a top priority.
"Especially reinforce education of young monks about the legal system so that they become patriots who love religion and observe discipline and law," the paper quoted Hao Peng as saying.
The International Campaign for Tibet said the re-education campaign, a tactic long used by the Communist Party, typically involved forcing Tibetans to denounce the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama fled his homeland in 1959 and remains a revered figure for Tibetans, although China believes he is a dangerous figure bent on achieving independence for Tibet.
China says he is orchestrating the latest unrest and refuses to hold talks with him. The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner denies fomenting the unrest.
Such orders to denounce the Dalai Lama helped trigger Thursday’s protest in Garze county of Sichuan province, International Campaign for Tibet spokesman Kate Saunders said.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported the incident late Friday, saying police were forced to fire warning shots to quell a "riot" in which protesters attacked a government building and seriously wounded one official.
Xinhua did not give other key details in its brief dispatch, such as how many "rioters" were involved or why they had marched on the government office.
The International Campaign for Tibet, the Free Tibet Campaign and Radio Free Asia reported that police had fired directly into the protesters, killing at least eight.
The attempted re-education campaign had taken place at Tongkor monastery, which the Free Tibet Campaign said had about 370 monks.
Independently verifying what happened, as with all the unrest, is extremely difficult because China has barred foreign reporters from travelling to Tibet and the other hotspot areas and blanketed them with security.
Calls by AFP to local government offices, hospitals and religious bureaus went unanswered or were met with denials of knowing anything about the incident.