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A leading human rights group says a Chinese government surveillance campaign is restricting freedom of expression and creating a culture of fear in Tibetan villages.

Human Rights Watch says more than 20,000 Communist Party members stationed in Tibetan areas "undertake intrusive surveillance of people, carry out widespread political re-education, and establish partisan security units" as part of the campaign.

Known officially as "Solidify the Foundation, Benefit the Masses," the campaign was created in 2011 with the stated goal of improving living standards in rural areas and achieving "social stability" in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

But Human Rights Watch says the main objectives of the campaign are to expand the size and influence of the Communist Party and eradicate support for the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader who Beijing views as a separatist and a traitor.

To do that, the New York-based group says Beijing carefully questions and monitors Tibetan villagers, categorizing them according to their religious and political views.

One villager told the rights group that everyone in his village was classified into three categories: those who support the system, those who secretly revere the Dalai Lama but do not protest openly, and those who do not accept re-education or support the Communist Party.

The villager said 135 of those found to be in the third category were taken away for 45 days and sent to be re-educated earlier this year. He said up to 500 people from a nearby village were also detained for re-education purposes around the same time.

Beijing has increased its security presence in Tibetan areas following a series of mass anti-government demonstrations and riots in 2008 against what many Tibetans see as Chinese repression of their religion and culture.

Since 2009, Chinese officials have worked hard to stop a wave of at least 119 self-immolations carried out in protest of China's policies in Tibet. As a result, rights groups say many of those who criticize state policies are often detained on "separatism" charges.

China has often accused the Dalai Lama and his followers of advocating for Tibetan secession. For his part, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly sought to assure Beijing that he is merely seeking dialogue aimed at establishing Tibetan autonomy.

Human Rights Watch's China director Sophie Richardson says Beijing's attempts to maintain "stability" are a "recipe for abuse" and are "intended to suppress Tibetan citizens' basic rights to free expression and to instill fear."

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