By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping vowed on Tuesday to crack down on separatist forces led by the Dalai Lama, suggesting that China's heir apparent to the presidency will not ease Beijing's hardline stance toward the region.
Xi, who is widely expected to become president in 2013, made the remarks in his first major speech on the subject, just days after the exiled Dalai Lama leader met U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, angering China.
"(We) should thoroughly fight against separatist activities by the Dalai clique by firmly relying on all ethnic groups ... and completely smash any plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardize national unity," Xi said in front of Lhasa's Potala Palace, the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama.
"The extraordinary development of Tibet over the past 60 years points to an irrefutable truth: without the Chinese Communist Party, there would have been no new China, no new Tibet," Xi said, at an event to mark 60 years since Tibet's "peaceful liberation."
Beijing has repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama of being a violent separatist.
The Nobel Peace prize laureate denies seeking independence for Tibet, saying he wants a peaceful transition to true autonomy for the remote Himalayan region, which China has ruled with an iron fist since 1950, when Chinese troops marched in.
China has put Tibetan capital Lhasa under tight security over the past few weeks, according to exiled Tibetan groups, and has also banned foreign tourists, nervous of attempts to disturb government celebrations marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Protests erupted across Tibetan parts of China in 2008 and least 19 people died in the violence in Lhasa, most of them majority Han Chinese. Pro-Tibet groups abroad say more than 200 people were killed in a subsequent crackdown.
China says that Communist rule has bought untold benefits to what was once a backward and dirt poor region.
Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily said in a front-page editorial that over the last six decades Tibet had "thrown off the fetters" of imperialism, "advanced from the dark toward the light" and "gone from being closed to being open."
Only by "deepening the struggle against the Dalai Lama splittist clique and ... ensuring long-term social stability ... can Tibet tower majestically at the top of the world," it added.
Rights groups have been watching Xi's trip to Tibet closely for signs of how policy toward the region may change. Current President Hu Jintao oversaw the introduction of martial law there in early 1989 when he was Tibet's Party boss.
"Very little is known about (Xi's) opinions on Tibet, except that his father, Xi Zhongxun, who was a former vice premier, was close to the 10th Panchen lama and also knew the Dalai Lama," said Alison Reynolds of the International Tibet Network.
"In the 1980s, when Tibetan envoys visited Tibet and met with Xi Zhongxun, they saw that he had treasured a gold watch that His Highness the Dalai Lama had given to him many years previously," she added.
"So the big question for us is, will Xi Jinping turn out to be his father's son? Will he show that he has any empathy for the Tibetan people at all?
(Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)