In a secret visit to Tibet on 21-22 July, China’s President Xi Jinping delivered a harsh message to Tibetans “follow Communist party”, the development raised eyebrows across the world. Xi emphasized the ethnic assimilation policies that have drawn international criticism, calling for officials to promote ethnic harmony and to actively guide Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to a socialist society.
Xi instructed local provincial officials to work towards making people in Tibet identify more with the “great motherland, Chinese people, Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party and socialism with Chinese characteristics”, according to its state-run media Xinhua. He also said that only when the people “follow the party” can the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” be realised. The message was loud and clear to its officials – force Tibetans to embrace the Communist Party.
“The timing of his visit seems designed to de-emphasize China’s original promises of autonomy and freedom to Tibetans, and instead to emphasize to Tibetans that they owe everything to the Communist Party,” NDTV quoted Robert Barnett, a British academic.
Xi visit – the first to Tibet by a Chinese leader in three decades that comes at a time when China faces increased security concerns as a result of the withdrawal of the US-led troops from Afghanistan and military clashes with India.
His trip marked by a stop in the Chinese military hub of Nyingtri, bordering India, amidst simmering tensions between both countries assumed significant. Photos released by Xinhua show Xi was accompanied by Zhang Youxia, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission and a Senior General in the People’s Liberation Army (PLO).
Analysts believe that he places the border struggle with India on top of his security agenda and wanted to convey this message to its neighbour India, which has stood its ground. Both sides indulged in aggressive troop movements and infrastructure building. India and China have bolstered military forces along the Indo-Tibet borders after the deadliest clash in decades last year. Both sides maintain over 50,000 troops along the borders in the Himalayas.
“China will strengthen infrastructure construction along the border, and encourages people of various minorities to set their roots at the border, to defend the territory and build the homeland,” Xi said during the visit, according to Xinhua.
China is accused of suppressing cultural and religious freedom in the Buddhist region of Tibet, which has been subject to intense social, security and religious controls, much like Uighurs in its northern neighbour Xinjiang. In September last year, prominent Xinjiang researcher Adrian Zenz released a report alleging that Beijing was instituting a mass labour system in Tibet similar to the one that has ensnared Muslim Uighurs.
Riots erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 2008 over allegations of religious oppression, leaving at least a dozen dead. Many exiled Tibetans accuse Beijing of religious repression and eroding their culture. As a result, there have been several protests including self-immolations, making the topic of Tibet very sensitive to Beijing. Campaign groups accuse China of political and religious repression and say it continues to violate human rights.
Xi’s visit comes about two weeks after the 14th Dalai Lama, turned 86. The choice of a successor to the spiritual leader of the Tibetans is shaping up to be a struggle between India and the US on one hand and China on the other. India is hard-pressed to influence the choice of the next Dalai Lama. The Chinese Foreign Ministry maintained that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is an internal affair that allows no interference.