In the year 2015, the Chinese government claimed that Tibet was now experiencing a golden age of development and prosperity after being emancipated from centuries old darkness and feudal theocracy. The class divide established under the Laws of Old Tibet – the “16-Article Code” and “13-Article Code” – had largely been corrected and serfdom abolished. Though such statements showcased the high optimism about growth and development in Tibet over the last few decades, in reality, these claims are far from the truth.

Unlike Xinjiang that has experienced relatively fast growth due to its strategic geographical location, progress in Tibet has been much slower. In addition, the scale of the international propaganda, especially US intervention in Tibet in terms of human rights issues and the status of autonomy, has rendered it more difficult for the leadership to co-opt local elite and integrate Tibet with the mainland polity and economy.

‘Tibetan separatism’ continues to be listed as China’s highest priority amongst internal security issues and an array of measures have been devised under Beijing’s ‘Iron fist and velvet glove policy’ (Nei Jun, wei sung), which combines development with religious repression.

 Tibetan People Arrested in Ngaba, Tibet, 2011 | Photo: SFT HQ, Wikimedia Commons

Political and religious control

The central government has redoubled its efforts to integrate Tibet after the 2008 riots that took place in the wake of the Beijing Olympics and the series of self-immolations that have taken place in the last few years. While selections to the local positions had begun to be monitored right from Hu Jintao’s times, Xi has raised the level of expectations around the personal etiquettes of the Tibetan delegates attending the National Congress meetings.

China not only insisted on appointing the 11th Panchen Lama of its own choice but also made it compulsory for Tibetans to turn up in large numbers to greet him even though most Tibetans do not accept him as the legitimate incarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. Similarly, in August 2014, Tibetans from 12 Namling (Shigatse prefecture) villages had been order to assign 80 people each “to come out and welcome the Panchen Lama, wearing traditional Tibetan dress and holding ceremonial scarves in their hands.” 

This remained significant as the Beijing-appointed Lama conformed to the official view that Tibet could only achieve progress and have a bright future under the leadership of Communist Party of China. He also professed to continue to guide Tibetan Buddhists to be adapted to the Chinese socialist society, promised to remain loyal to the party and maintain China’s unity, stability and harmony.

Selections to the local Chinese government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) have been meticulously filled with those supporting the state, carefully side-lining separatists or supporters based on any six criteria or avoidances fixed by the central government for recruitment. These six avoidances described in the report by China’s Ministry of Human Resource and Social Security include:

“those who have avoided making speeches against the spirit of the decisions made by the Central Committee of the CPC, or those perceived to have overtly agreed to but covertly opposed such decisions, those who avoided provoking ethnic dissensions or undermining ethnic unity; those who have avoided participating in or supporting ethnic separatist activities; those who have avoided going abroad to enshrine the Dalai Lama and sending relatives and children to schools linked to the Dalai Lama.”

The local media and institute in Tibet, for instance, TARASS (Theoretical Marxism Institute of the Tibet Autonomous region Academy of Social Science) explained that though these measures had been followed earlier as well, but they had never been publicised before Xi’s times. The report further mentioned that 80,000 cadres of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been sent to villages, 7,000 to temples and 8000 policeman to different districts reflecting the close monitoring of religious activities under Xi’s guidance.

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Though the official policy of maintaining ethnic Tibetan cadres on top posts has been maintained, a parallel level of authority has been established whereby a total of 694 villages have been assigned one ethnic Han and one ethnic Tibetan as principal Party and government leaders, which indicates that all leadership positions are being controlled by Han Chinese cadres, with the Tibetan cadres simply carrying out orders of their Chinese bosses.

The annual meeting in Beijing of China’s parliament in March 2016 witnessed Tibetan’s sporting two unique lapel pins displaying their loyalty to the Chinese leadership in marked contrast from other delegates from other regions. One of these inch-wide round pins shows a Chinese flag and busts of five Chinese leaders, from revolutionary founding father Mao Zedong to the current Chinese president Xi Jinping. The second one showed a smiling Xi visiting a Tibetan family. One of the delegates attending the ceremonies attested that it was a show of gratitude to the Communist Party and its leaders.

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Those disobeying orders are being booked for ‘political error’ with a close pinning down through notifications of mobile numbers and identity cards. Even those who were designated not to be present during these ceremonies have been banned from gathering on rooftops or looking out of their windows, showcasing the government’s complete hold over personal life in Tibet. Monasteries that have been chosen to host ceremonies for Gyaincain Norbu (since being made a vice-president of China’s state-run Buddhist Association) have been given special grants of around USD 24,360 each to prepare the receptions.

Even earlier, some of these monasteries had been given funds for restoration under a larger attempt to boost the tourism value of Tibetan culture. Stripping of senior Tibetan officials also continues with bans on teaching in monasteries for those refusing to cooperate with Chinese officials, conducting patriotic re-education campaigns, which in the Tibetan case includes the orders to denounce the Dalai Lama and accepting that Tibet has historically been a part of China.

The controversial issue regarding the disappearance of the Panchen Lama continues to be shielded only with some objections from the US from time to time, even though China has taken up this issue at the UN human rights committees, but it refuses to respond positively to any queries insisting at the same time that he and his family were doing fine.

A signboard narrates the story of the missing Panchen Lama, Manali, India | Photo: John Hill, WC

Education and connectivity

Yet again, issues of language and education are situated at the core of the Tibetan struggle for identity, with even Han cadres being forced to learn Tibetan so as to be able to survive in their leadership positions. In 2014, Tibet had six colleges and universities in TAR with a combined strength of 27000 students, with the University of Tibet being included into the 211 project of China’s key education development program. Despite these advances, Tibetans continue to complain that Tibetan students dominate only courses in traditional Tibetan studies while Chinese students dominate overwhelmingly in modern science and technology subjects.

Meanwhile, economic development continues to be the primary strategy for integration. While the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has opened up tourism potential and brought development to the region in 2006, more recently, China opened the new high-altitude airport at Ngari in Tibet (4,300 meters), claimed to be the highest airport in the world. It is meant to demonstrate China’s determination to integrate and consolidate its physical presence in the TAR region.

Even though these railways are making huge deficits, they are still being viewed by the Central government in Beijing as the ultimate solution to the Tibet issue. In 2014, Xi approved large scale drilling projects in TAR, with China drilling a seven-kilometer borehole into the Tibetan plateau in a bid to extract “enormous oil and natural gas potential”, which were estimated by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) at 10 billion tonnes in 1995.

However, the whereabouts of the project have not been disclosed, along with the names of the state-owned oil companies active in the region. CNPC and Sinopec have both declined to respond to queries regarding their involvement in these high risk projects, though several media personalities have cautioned against the potentially irreversible damage to Tibet’s fragile ecosystems.

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Overall, Xi Jinping’s efforts have yielded quick results with the TAR region showing lesser extremist activities and a scale down in cases of self-immolation or terrorist activities. The fact that the Chinese nationality model does not offer the formal right of political secession to its nationalities, as was provided in case of the Soviet model, has borne fruit for Chinese political descendants. Ethnic regionalism has been subdued to a greater level in comparison to the case of the previous leaderships, and separatist movements curtailed.

Under the ten year partner assistance programmes of the western development campaign, affluent regions have been connected to sister cities in these two autonomous regions. Most importantly, the entire debate around ethnic Tibetan nationalism has been relatively silenced over the last five years, which could become the trade-mark achievement of Xi’s reign. With the integration of the Hong Kong SAR and similar intent in the Xinjiang region, the prospects are really threatening.

Though substantial threats and challenges still remain to be solved, Xi has managed to head China’s policy in a direction that could possibly cover the gaps in the scope of minority nationalism in China and promote Han Nationalism. It is also evident that totalitarian control deriving from Xi’s personal charisma and authority is one of the most defining features of China’s domestic policy today. Yet, a possibility of backlash can become apparent as soon as the hold of the centre slackens on this region, particularly given ethnicity as a major determinant to identity survives strongly amongst Tibetans.

Views expressed are the author’s own.