Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) last week. The visit is significant for what it says about how the Chinese Party-State views its control over the Tibetan region.
It is noteworthy that Xi’s last visit to the TAR — one of the provinces carved out of the old Tibet — was in 2011, and so this is the first time he has visited since taking over as China’s top leader. The delay is particularly striking, given that Xi visited China’s other large and troubled ethnic minority province, Xinjiang, in April 2014.
Much preparation has gone into Xi’s TAR visit. Last year saw visits by top leaders, Wang Yang, number four on the Standing Committee of the CPC Politburo and responsible for Tibet and Xinjiang affairs, Hu Chunhua, State Council Vice Premier and former TAR Party Secretary, and Wang Yi, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister. In August, the CPC conducted the 7th Tibet Work Forum, while in May, the Chinese government issued a white paper to present what it called “a true and panoramic picture of the new socialist Tibet”.
Xi has, in fact, regularly made pronouncements on Tibet-related affairs leaving no one in doubt what the overall approach of the Chinese Party-State is towards the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan exile movement, and the region.
At Nyingchi prefecture across the border from the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, the official Xinhua news agency reports that Xi “was warmly welcomed by local people and officials of various ethnic groups” suggesting that showcasing ethic harmony between the Hans and the other ethnicities of the province is an essential goal of the CPC.
‘Patriotic education’ is an important part of the Chinese Party-State’s approach to maintaining control over the Tibetan population, including Buddhist monasteries; this has included banning India-trained Buddhists monks from teaching in Tibetan monasteries. At the Work Forum, Xi declared Tibetan Buddhism had to be “guided in adapting to the socialist society and… developed in the Chinese context” — essentially a call for the Sinicisation of the religion. Simply put, Beijing’s views itself as the arbiter of decisions in the religious sphere, including the choice of a future Dalai Lama.
At Lhasa, in an address to the TAR party committee and government, Xi stressed “education, work concerning core socialist values, patriotism, anti-secessionism, history, and Marxist concepts” as well as “building a stronger sense of identification with the country, the Chinese nation, the Chinese culture, the CPC, and socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
Together these phrases indicate a focus on greater assimilation of Tibetan areas into the mainstream of the CPC thinking and national identity. Clearly, the Chinese Party-State remains less than fully confident about the loyalties of its Tibetan population, which is probably one reason why official announcements of the visit were delayed.
Economic development is another important priority for the Chinese leadership. While the 100th anniversary of the CPC was recently celebrated with much pomp, minority areas face challenges in overcoming income inequality and the lack of physical infrastructure when compared to Han majority areas. At the 7th Tibet Work Forum, Xi specifically called for improvement and better implementation of policies on income, housing, medical care and retirement, and education for children of Tibetan cadre. Xi’s itinerary at Nyingchi also indicated urban development and poverty alleviation concerns given his visits to both city and rural infrastructure, and the use of such expressions as “rural vitalisation”.
It is not for nothing that Xi was accompanied on his trip by Politburo member and State Council Vice-Premier Liu He. While Liu is nominally below Premier Li Keqiang in the hierarchy, it is he who appears to be the General Secretary’s point person on economic issues also serving as the top Chinese negotiator in the trade war with the United States. So the trip also serves to inform us both about how Xi’s inner circle is set up, as well as the tasks he sees as important.
Also, on the Xi delegation was the head of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), He Lifeng. The NDRC is the national body that supervises both large infrastructure projects at home as well as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) externally — both of which are part of the development plans for the TAR. Regional connectivity projects also have larger military considerations. Xi also visited the Nyingchi railway station and took the train from Nyingchi to Lhasa on a recently opened section of the strategic Sichuan-Tibet Railway, and parts of which run close to the border with India. General Zhang Youxia, one of two vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission under Xi, was another important member of the delegation to TAR.
Finally, the constant references to the ‘new’ to describe the Party-State’s approaches to or the conditions of development on the Tibetan plateau, also underline Xi’s attempts to leave his personal imprimatur on Tibet policy. This ambition and desire to stand out from China’s previous leaders will have consequences not just for China’s domestic politics, but also for its neighbours and for the wider world.
Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Xi Jinping in Tibet — Part 1: China’s quest for greater control’, Moneycontrol, 27 July 2021.