Beijing (AFP) - China's sentencing of a leading Uighur academic to life in prison is an ominous turning point that will deter other intellectuals and risks silencing debate on Beijing's handling of ethnic issues including Tibet, experts say.
Ilham Tohti, a 44-year-old economics professor and critic of China's policies towards the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, was handed the unusually harsh sentence on charges of "separatism" Tuesday.
The decision by a court in Urumqi, the capital of the violence-wracked far western region of Xinjiang, unleashed sharp international criticism with President Barack Obama saying the US "stood in solidarity" with Tohti and other activists detained globally.
Foreign analysts said such harsh treatment towards a decidedly moderate figure who in no way advocated that Uighurs break away from China -- even as other government critics have received far lighter sentences -- would be seen as a warning.
"There are other people who I think are obviously quite nervous now and trying to draw their own conclusions," said Barry Sautman, an expert on ethnic politics in China at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Sautman said some government critics had believed that "if they have contacts abroad and people are paying attention to them, it prevents the Chinese authorities from taking action against them."
But Tohti's case showed that an international network may not be enough -- and that the authorities' decision to punish him in part "may be because he developed his foreign contacts to the level he did."
- Xi presides over clampdown -
The rise of President Xi Jinping, who became Communist Party chief in late 2012, has seen a push to stamp out dissent, with scores of activists, lawyers, journalists and academics jailed in a clampdown that rights groups say is the harshest in decades.
The campaign has, besides Tohti, ensnared other moderate critics who had largely sidestepped official wrath such as celebrated rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and Xu Zhiyong, a founder of the loose-knit New Citizens Movement activist network.
Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, noted the emergence last year of a leaked internal Communist Party document on "seven taboos" which included universal values and civil rights.
He noted that was followed by a crackdown on party critics, a tightening of Beijing's grip over semi-autonomous Hong Kong, and now Xi's increasingly hawkish position on ethnic issues amid a string of deadly terror attacks China blames on separatists from Xinjiang.
"It certainly reflects the values and the style of the Xi Jinping administration, that it wants to pose itself as a strong government ready to crack down on any dissidents and opposition," Cheng said.
Hu Jia, a prominent Beijing-based dissident, quipped that Xi's determined consolidation of power has made him worthy of a new name: "Xi Yongkang".
The moniker combines Xi's surname with the given name of China's infamous former security czar, Zhou Yongkang, known for quashing dissent and now under investigation by Xi.
"Xi Yongkang is even more terrifying than Zhou Yongkang," Hu told AFP.
With Tohti behind bars, the lack of outspoken critics of Beijing's policies towards Uighurs reveals the extent of Xi's hard line, said Michael Clarke, an authority on the region at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia.
"Tohti's case I think is highly symbolic of a real watershed moment in Beijing's handling of Xinjiang and the Uighur," he said. "It is a categorical demonstration that it will countenance no dissent from its 'line' in Xinjiang."
- Uighurs' Nelson Mandela? -
Party authorities have taken a similarly tough stance towards criticism of their policies in ethnic Tibetan regions that in recent years have seen a string of self-immolation protests in protest over Beijing's control.
Among the leading dissenting voices is Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet and activist who has frequently faced house arrest and repeatedly denied a passport.
This week she posted messages of support for Tohti on her social media accounts, contending in one that the Uighur scholar is deserving of a Nobel Prize.
Woeser's husband, activist Wang Lixiong, tweeted that Tohti has become a "Uighur Nelson Mandela" -- a statement that drew a strong rebuke from China's authorities and state media.
"Mandela is a national hero of South Africa, but Ilham Tohti is a criminal sentenced to life imprisonment by China on charges of separatism," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday when asked about the comparison.
While the US and EU have led condemnation of Tohti's sentence, Sautman said the scholar's identity as a Uighur has both drawn him a harsher result and made his case one that is likely to fade on the international stage.
He contrasted Tohti with 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, whose emphasis on the promotion of democracy in China is easier for outsiders to sympathise with.
"(Liu) will be seen in the West as somebody who's a democratic fighter, whereas Ilham Tohti will perhaps be considered a person who fought for the interests of his own people -- but they are a people, after all, who are not very well known in the world," he said.