BEIJING (Reuters) - A top Chinese official has vowed to severely punish members of the ruling Communist Party in Tibet who "harbor fantasies" about the troubled region's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, state media said on Wednesday.
In a front-page article in the Tibet Daily, Tibet's party chief Chen Quanguo said China would stamp out any separatist inclinations.
"As for cadres who harbor fantasies about the 14th Dalai Group, follow the Dalai Group, participate in supporting separatist infiltration sabotage activities, (they will be) strictly and severely punished according to the law and party disciplinary measures," Chen was quoted as saying.
Chen's denunciation of the Dalai Lama signals a hardening stance against the Nobel Peace Prize winner whom they label a "wolf in sheep's clothing" who seeks to use violent methods to establish an independent Tibet.
The Dalai Lama had expressed hope last month about making a pilgrimage to China, saying that he had discussions with Chinese officials about a possible trip, according to media reports.
The Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, says he simply wants genuine autonomy for Tibet, and denies espousing violence.
Human rights activists say China tramples on religious freedom and culture in Tibet, which it has ruled with an iron fist since People's Liberation Army troops "peacefully liberated" the region in 1950. Photographs of the Dalai Lama are banned in what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region.
China rejects such criticism, saying its rule ended serfdom and brought development to a backward, poverty-stricken region.
Chen's comments could also signal a broader clampdown on religious freedoms in China. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party's discipline watchdog, which recently sent an inspection team to eastern Zhejiang province, said it found "several party members who were religious believers", the website of the People's Daily, the party's official mouthpiece, said late on Tuesday.
Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution but the officially atheist Communist Party has no qualms about crushing those who challenge its rule. Party members are banned from believing in religion.
Beijing maintains a tight grip over religion, especially in its ethnic minority regions such as Tibet, where monks have been jailed for supporting the Dalai Lama, and Xinjiang, where it says it is fighting Islamic fundamentalism.
Authorities in Wenzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, have torn down crosses from several churches this year, according to media reports. Wenzhou has a large Christian population.
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie