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Hu's "New Deal" with Tibet: Chinese Characteristics and Tibetan Traits?

January 24, 2010

By Willy Lam
China Brief
Volume: 10 Issue: 2
January 22, 2010

The Hu Jintao administration has significantly
tightened policy over Tibet in an apparent
attempt to ensure the proverbial Chinese
Communist Party’s "long reign and perennial
stability” in the restive region. More hard-line
cadres are being appointed to run the Tibet
Autonomous Region (TAR). While unprecedented aid
has been pledged for the estimated 6.5 million
Tibetans living in the TAR as well as the
neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and
Qinghai, the bulk of the new infrastructure
projects also serve to speed up Han Chinese
migration. These multi-pronged measures seem
geared toward defusing possible disturbances in
the event of the demise of the 75-year-old Dalai
Lama. Meanwhile, prospects for the resumption of
dialogue between Beijing and the exiled spiritual
leader have become more dismal than ever.

The most eye-catching personnel change is the
appointment of the hawkish Pema Thinley (aka
Padma Choling), 58, as TAR Chairman, or Governor.
Pema, a former executive-vice chairman who had
also been promoted TAR Vice-Party Secretary,
replaced 62-year-old Qiangba Puncog, who has
become head of the region’s People’s Congress, or
legislature (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], January 16;
Tibet Daily, January 6). Given that Qiangba is
three years shy of the normal retirement age for
provincial chiefs, it is likely that the
relatively moderate—but ineffective—Qiangba was
penalized for failing to deal harshly with the
spate of anti-Beijing protests that erupted in
the spring of 2008 and 2009. Pema, by contrast,
is one of only a few senior ethnic-Tibetan cadres
with solid military experience. He served in the
Qinghai and Tibet military districts from 1969 to
1986. When Hu was TAR party boss, Pema was
secretary of the party cell of the regional
government’s General Office as well as deputy
head of the Nanshan District. Moreover, Pema, who
has since the early 2000s been responsible for
law and order in the TAR, has the reputation of a
hard-line enforcer of Beijing’s ironclad strategy
against the so-called “three evil forces” of
separtism, terrorism and religious extremism
(Novosti News Agency [Moscow] January 12; Xinhua News Agency, January 12).

The party-and-state apparatus’ tough tactics
toward ethnic minorities were endorsed at a
January 8 Politburo meeting devoted exclusively
to Tibetan issues. In the meeting, President Hu,
who was party secretary of Tibet from 1988 to
1992, heralded two goals for the TAR in the
coming decade: "seeking a breakthrough-style
[economic] development" and "maintaining
long-term stability." In an apparent effort to
win the hearts and minds of Tibetans, Hu promised
that the central government would help Tibet in
four ways: boosting investment, transferring
technology, and sending in more qualified
officials as well as “experts and talents.” The
region’s GDP is set to grow by 12 percent this
year, while fixed-assets investments are expected
to grow by a whopping 18 percent. Under President
Hu’s dictum of "going down the road of
development with Chinese characteristics and
Tibetan flavor” (zhongguo tese, xizang tedian),
additional input has been focused on areas
including infrastructure, tourism, mining and
manufacturing. Little wonder that the share
prices of a dozen-odd Tibet-related construction,
transport and mining companies listed on the
Shanghai Stock Market jumped sharply at the
beginning of the year (Tibet Daily, January 9;
Xinhua News Agency, January 9; People’s Daily, January 10).

Foremost among infrastructure schemes mooted for
the 12th Five-Year Plan period of 2011 to 2015 is
what the official Chinese press bills "the
world’s highest airport.” Construction of the 1.8
billion yuan ($263.5 million) airport in Tibet’s
Nagqu Prefecture, which has an elevation of 4,436
meters (14,639 feet), will begin late this year.
According to local media, the Nagqu Airport
would, together with ultramodern facilities such
as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, "perfect a
three-dimensional transport network that will
envelop all Tibet” (AFP, January 12; [Beijing], January 16). Exiled
Tibetans and Western Tibet experts, however, have
reacted negatively to Beijing’s supposed new deal
for the impoverished region. The Dalai Lama’s
representatives have complained that Chinese
investment in the TAR mainly benefits businessmen
and skilled workers from other provinces—and that
modernized transport systems in particular will
facilitate Sinicization through the migration of
Han Chinese into the region. Commenting on the Hu
leadership’s new policy on Tibet, Columbia
University Tibetologist Robert Barnett noted that
“China now seems locked into conflict with
Tibetans.” “Either Beijing’s leaders lack the
political capital to admit that existing policies
might have failed or…they believe that Tibetans
will be won over by the current mix of repression
and enforced, culturally corrosive modernization
that stimulates migration," he said [1].

President Hu and his advisers have not mentioned
what kind of "experts" will be dispatched to
Tibet. In the wake of ethnic violence in both
Tibet and Xinjiang last year, however, more
soldiers and officers of the paramilitary
People’s Armed Police (PAP) have been stationed
in the two regions (See “The Xinjiang Crisis: A
Test for Beijing’s Carrot-and-Stick Strategy,
China Brief, July 23, 2009). It is significant
that Commander-in-Chief Hu last month promoted a
former head of the Tibet People’s Armed Police
(PAP) Garrison, Lieutenant-General General Wang
Jianping, as the commander of the national PAP,
whose strength is estimated at close to 1
million. Particularly compared to so-called
splittists in Xinjiang, "anti-Beijing" elements
in Tibet are pacifist and non-violent in nature.
Yet, Chinese authorities anticipate redoubled
resistance as they crack the whip on monks and
other potential troublemakers in the TAR as well
as Tibetan districts in neighboring provinces.
Beijing is stepping up a controversial drive to
register the “qualifications” and other
background materials of all living Buddhas, monks
and nuns in the region. In the past few months,
several monks and dissidents were given severe
prison terms. For instance, liberal film-maker
Dhondup Wangchen was sentenced last month to six
years in jail for producing a documentary
attacking Beijing’s Tibet-related cultural
policies (Reuters, January 7, January 11; [Rome], January 4).

Moreover, Beijing seems to have closed the door
to on-again, off-again negotiations with the
emissaries of the Dalai Lama. The CCP’s relations
with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate have soured
particularly in the wake of the latter’s visit
late last year to Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian
province that Beijing considers to be Chinese
territory. Chinese diplomats are also pulling out
all the stops to prevent politicians of Western
countries from meeting the head of the Tibetan
movement (read government) -in-exile. Diplomatic
analysts say the Hu administration is not keen on
reopening a dialogue because Beijing thinks that
the momentum is going China’s way. After the
Dalai Lama’s death, the Tibetan movement will be
devoid of a globally recognized leader and may
well be splintered along factional lines
(Reuters, November 8, 2009; Ming Pao, November 9,
2009; Global Times [Beijing] December 8, 2009).
Columbia University’s Barnett thinks that while
Beijing may not have ruled out the possibility of
re-opening talks, possibilities of a compromise
are slim. “The Chinese side might agree at the
last minute to a token meeting with the Dalai
Lama to avoid the ignominy of forcing him to die
in exile,” said Barnett. “But until they see a
link between policy failure and protest, they
seem unlikely to offer the Tibetans anything significant.

At the same time, President Hu, who is the
Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of
ethnic-minority affairs, has beefed up the state
security net in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region
(XAR). The regional government is due to spend
2.89 billion yuan ($423.1 million) on maintaining
law and order this year. This is 87.9 percent
more than the 2009 figure. XAR Chairman Nur
Bekri, a member of Hu’s Communist Youth League
Faction (CYL), said last week that "strengthening
social security and striking hard with an iron
fist against the ‘three forces’ of terrorism,
separatism and extremism will remain top
priorities for Xinjiang” (China News Service,
January 8; China Daily, January 13). The CCP
leadership’s hardened stance on the two
autonomous regions has made it even more unlikely
that the ultra-conservative Party Secretaries of
TAR and XAR, respectively Zhang Qingli and Wang
Lequn, will be replaced any time soon. This is
despite reports in the Hong Kong-media late last
year that the 65-year-old Wang, who was first
stationed in Xinjiang in the early 1990s, would
be transferred to a less sensitive post soon
(Ming Pao, December 14, 2009;
[Beijing], December 15, 2009).

One of the most detrimental results of the
conservative turn in Beijing’s policy toward
Tibet and Xinjiang is that moderates on both
sides have been cowed into silence. For example,
before the July 5 riots in Urumqi last year,
quite a number of Xinjiang and Han Chinese
intellectuals had run websites advocating
reconciliation across racial lines. At least
unofficially, liberal Chinese cadres have also
advocated a return to the flexible and tolerant
ethnic policies associated with illustrious
figures such as former Party General Secretary Hu
Yaobang and former Vice-Premier Xi Zhongxun, the
late father of Vice-President Xi Jinping (AFP,
July 9, 2009; The Times [London] August 7, 2009).

In the wake of the crackdown on free-thinking
websites and liberal NGOs, however, voices of
reason and moderation have been marginalized.
Moreover, nationalism, including growing
intolerance toward the perceived alien cultures
of Tibetans and Uyghurs—and attacks on the West
for abetting pro-independence movements in
China—seems to be on the rise among young Han
Chinese. The latter’s fulminations against
allegedly ungrateful and unpatriotic Tibetans and
Uyghurs can often be found in the chatrooms of
popular websites. Given the news blackout on
Tibet and Xinjiang, it seems that the Hu
Politburo’s harsh policies have succeeded at
least in the near term in quashing all
manifestations of defiance. Over the long haul,
however, heavy-handed suppression as well as
Sinicization is unlikely to foster the kind of
understanding and comradeship among different
nationalities on which lasting stability and prosperity are predicated.

1. Author’s interview with Robert Barnett, January 15, 2010.

-- Willy Lam is a Hong Kong-based China
specialist with more than 25 years of experience
analyzing and writing about Chinese politics,
foreign and military affairs, and China-Taiwan
relations. He was based in Beijing from 1986 to
1989, and has held senior editorial positions
with regional and international media including
Asiaweek, South China Morning Post, and the
Asia-Pacific Office of CNN. Dr. Lam is the author
of five books about China, including China after
Deng Xiaoping and The Era of Jiang Zemin.)
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