Why did Xi meet PLA Generals?
On June 22 and 23, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) visited Lhasa after a gap of ten years. A day before, the Chinese president went to Nyingchi City (previously called Prefecture), near the Indian border of Arunachal Pradesh.
The China Daily reported: “he was warmly welcomed by local people and officials of various ethnic groups. …He then visited the Nyang River Bridge, to inspect the ecological preservation in the basin of the Yarlung Tsangpo River [Brahmaputra] and its tributary Nyang River.”
This is an important part of the two-day visit (June 21 to 23) as far as India is concerned.
For China, it has to be seen in the context of the CPC’s 100th anniversary and the 70 anniversary of the so-called Liberation of Tibet (read ‘invasion’). The ‘Op Bakhor’, as we shall see, was certainly part of the ‘celebrations’, even if fully stage-managed.
Later The People’s Daily stated the objectives of the visit: “to implement the party’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era and write a new chapter in long-term stability and high-quality development of the snow-covered plateau.” This refers to the 7th Work Forum held in August 2020 which defined the development policies for Tibet for the five next years, particularly the sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.
Visit of Comrade Hu Yaobang to Tibet
When I heard about Xi’s tour of Tibet, the ‘best’ visit of a Secretary General in Tibet immediately comes to mind.
From May 22 to May 31, 1980; Hu Yaobang went on an in-depth and honest inspection tour of Central Tibet. A Chinese report later explained: “it can be said that this event marked the beginning of a new era for the CPC’s Tibet policy. In the ten years that followed that visit history marched on with its strong steps, leaving behind impressive footprints: amongst them, indisputably, the open door, a revitalised economy, changes in the social structure and an improvement in people’s lives.”
Unfortunately, it did not to last.
Wan Li, member of the Central Committee and Vice-Premier of the State Council, thus described Hu’s tour: “The choice of date pointed out that the Central Government was willing to settle matters through consultation with the local people. …it aimed to show the Central Government’s wish to restore the harmonious atmosphere of cooperation which had prevailed in the early 1950s.”
On May 29, Hu Yaobang made a ‘passionate’ political speech at a gathering of 5,000 cadres in Lhasa; the slogan put forward in the speech was ‘Strive to build a united, prosperous and civilised new Tibet.”
In the speech Hu listed six tasks facing Tibet, the first point was that Tibet should “exercise nationality autonomy in the region fully – that is to say, to let Tibetans really be the masters of their own lives.”
Unfortunately, this would never be followed, as the hard-liners soon prevailed.
Post-Tiananmen massacre, Jiang Zemin became the General Secretary and towards the end of July 1990, Jiang, accompanied by the PLA Chief of General Staff, Gen Chi Haotian, paid the ‘highest-level visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in a decade’ (incidentally, Gen Chi was responsible for the repression on the Tiananmen Square in June 1989).
They promised new economic incentives for Tibetans and urged continued vigilance against pro-independence activities. However, Jiang Zemin did not echo Hu Yaobang’s views in 1990: “It is necessary to strengthen education in patriotism and socialism in the light of conditions in China and Tibet, so as to make the students know from childhood that Tibet is an inalienable sacred part of the big family of the motherland, and that there will be no socialist new Tibet if there is no CCP.”
It appears that during Jiang Zemin’s visit to Tibet, a close relationship was established between the general secretary and his future protégé, Hu Jintao.
From the end of the 1980s, Hu Jintao, the future General Secretary has been serving as Party boss in Lhasa, though he did not like Tibet at all.
There was a well known anecdote about Hu amongst Tibetan cadres: ‘Where is Hu?’ The answer was: ‘Hu is in Beijing Hospital.’ ‘Why?’ Because, Hu would report sick each time he had to go to Lhasa!
When he became General Secretary, Hu never visited Tibet.
Xi Jinping, who succeeded Hu (Junior) in 2012, had visited Tibet as Vice-President in 2011; the present tour was therefore his first in Central Tibet in nearly a decade.
However less than two months ago, the Chinese President went to Gangcha County in Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province. The area is mainly inhabited by Tibetans and Mongols.
According to Xinhua: “Xi was briefed about the environmental protection efforts in the Qilian Mountains and Qinghai (Kokonor) Lake. At the lake, he inspected achievements made in comprehensively addressing environmental problems and protecting biodiversity.”
Later, Xi visited a Tibetan settlement in Shaliuhe Township “to learn about the lives of local Tibetan residents.” It was mainly a promotion tour for him; one could even hear Xi saying ‘Tashi Delek’ (‘namaste’ in Tibetan).
The Visit in Central Tibet
The present visit is therefore the second tour of Tibetan-inhabited area in the last two months. I list below some important implications of the Lhasa-Nyingchi visit:
- It comes at the end of July when routinely a member of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the politburo pays a visit to Tibet. The purpose of the ‘inspection tour’ is mainly to report to the informal conclave held yearly in Beidaihe, the sea resort where the top leadership (past and present) of the Communist Party meets and discusses threadbare the issues facing the Middle Kingdom.
- Usually, Wang Yang, the no 4 in the Communist hierarchy (in charge of ‘minorities’) goes to the Tibetan plateau. This year the New Great Helmsman himself went; this shows the importance that the Party attaches to Tibet …and the border with India.
- Though the visit was kept a State secret, videos started circulating on social media on July 22 in the evening. They had been shot during Xi’s tour of the Bakhor (the ‘shopping’ parikrama around the Jokhang Cathedral in Central Lhasa). The General Secretary was seen coming out of a shop and then walking between two ranges of people. Several hundred people must have been there, giving a tough time to the security personnel. Though it was certainly stage-managed and well-orchestrated to show the popularity of the Core Leader, the videos are quite impressive.
- We had to wait one more day to get the gist of the rest of the visit (which had taken place earlier), but the purpose to leak the videos of the visit which was still ‘secret’ was undoubtedly to show that the situation in Tibet is well under control. It was an indirect response to the Western attacks on China about Human Rights’ violations, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet.
- The fact that no accident took place (the participants must have been carefully selected and screened before the event), added a feather to the Emperor’s cap (at least as far as the Party is concerned, certainly not for the Tibetans).
- It has to be noted that the Jokhang Cathedral was a few meters away. Xi Jinping did not go there; he probably wanted to re-state that Communist China is atheist (though later Xi visited Drepung monastery). The Jokhang Cathedral is too much historically linked with Independent Tibet (particular a stone stele which records the Treaty of 821 AD, between Tibet and China).
- The Treaty says: “Between the two countries [Tibet and China] no smoke, nor dust shall be seen. There shall be no sudden alarms and the very word ‘enemy’ shall not be spoken. Even the frontier guards shall have no anxiety, nor fear and shall enjoy land and bed at their ease. All shall live in peace and share the blessing of happiness for ten thousand years. …This solemn agreement has established a great epoch when Tibetans shall be happy in the land of Tibet, and Chinese in the land of China.”
- During the visit to the Bakhor, Xi was accompanied by Wu Yingjie, the Party Secretary of Tibet and Che Dralha, the No 3 and Governor. Lobsang Gyaltse, the senior most Tibetan was missing-in-action. Liu He, Xi’s faithful lieutenant (and member of the Politburo) was there, with Gen Zhang Youxia, one of the two vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Yang Xiaodu, a regular of Xi’s visits also in attendance (both are members of the Politburo) and a couple of other politburo members.
- According to a report issued by Xinhua, Xi arrived July 21 morning at Linzhi (Nyingchi) airport. He drove to the Niyang River Bridge to learn about the ecological environment protection; the Nyang is a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo, which becomes the Siang in Arunachal and later the Brahmaputra. Xi wanted to learn about the river basins: “In the afternoon of the 21st, Xi Jinping came to Nyingchi City Planning Museum, Gagla (or Gala) Village and visited Gongpo Park in Bayi District, to inspect urban development planning, rural revitalization, urban park construction and other work.”
- ‘Other work’ certainly refers to ‘Bayi’ which means ‘8-1 or August 1’ a term usually reserved to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which was founded on August 1. Bayi is the Headquarter of the forces facing India in Arunachal Pradesh. The presence of Gen Zhang Youxia was possibly necessary at this stage, though no details have filtrated. Xi later met the PLA top brass in Lhasa.
- The Xinhua report continues: “On the morning of the 22nd, Xi Jinping came to Nyingchi Railway Station to learn about the overall planning of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway and the construction and operation of the Lhasa-Nyingchi section, and then Xi had a ride in the train to Lhasa; he is said to have inspected the construction along the Lalin (Lhasa-Linzhi) Railway.
- Weibo resumed the visit in short sentences: “Xi Jinping went to Tibet for investigation, this is the first time since taking office. Xi Jinping communicated with local officials. Xi Jinping inspected Tibet. Xi Jinping interacted with the people in Tibet. Xi Jinping went to Tibet for investigation, this is the first time since taking office. Xi Jinping went to Tibet for research.”
- A worrying aspect of Xi Jinping’s tour was the visit to Nyingchi. On November 30, 2020, The Global Times had announced China’s plan to build a large hydropower project on the Yarlung Tsangpo; the Communist tabloid admitted that it could raise concerns in India “over potential political and ecological threats as the river passes through Southwest China, India and Bangladesh. [But] Chinese experts refuted the claim that Chinese hydropower project have political aims, and said the project could help alleviate power shortage problem in northern India and boost regional economy.” It is obviously a non-sense. Did the President come to give his green light to the project?
- It is difficult to answer. A series of hydropower plants (thrice the capacity of the Three-Gorges Dam) could be catastrophic for India.
- Also important for India was Xi Jinping’s meeting with the representatives of the officers and soldiers of the PLA stationed in Tibet. According to Xinhua: “Xi Jinping extended sincere greetings to all commanders and fighters of the troops stationed in Tibet and fully affirmed the outstanding contributions made by the troops stationed in Tibet.”
- In a speech Xi stated: “Over the past 70 years, the troops of Tibet Military District have resolutely implemented the decision-making and deployment instructions of the CMC. They have successfully completed a series of heavy tasks in the snowy plateau and have withstood the test of the arduous environment and the complexity of the country, towards maintaining national security, towards unifying and promoting and development of Tibet, have made outstanding contributions to the stability and development of the People’s Republic of China. Thank you all!”
- Apart from the usual jargon, the video of the encounter was interesting to watch, especially the large number of lieutenant and major generals associated with Tibet; the presence of the CMC’s Vice-Chairman has already been mentioned.
- Lastly, someone was missing. Gyaltsen Norbu, the Panchen Lama selected by Beijing (and rejected by Dharamsala) was not to be seen, though he is the Chairman of the Buddhist Association of Tibet and a member of China’s top political advisory body, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Where was he? It appears that he was preaching in Gansu province. Why was he not invited? Why did he not take the Chinese President to Drepung or other religious places in Lhasa? It appears that he may not be in the good papers of the Beijing leadership. It is worth watching.
It was certainly an important visit, and the policies/decisions taken in August during the 7th Work Forum will be implemented with more vigor after Xi’s visit. It does not augur well for the Tibetans …and India.