Major troop movements in Tibet; hardline approach to Dalai Lama in key policy talks

Troops moving through Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) in Qinghai in July.

Troops moving through Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) in Qinghai in July.


  • Major troop movements, including tanks or heavy artillery in convoys of more than 200 vehicles, have been observed in different parts of Tibet in the buildup to the September 1 anniversary of the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which will be attended by Chinese leaders from Beijing. The People’s Liberation Army held major live fire exercises this week led by the Chengdu military district that oversees Tibet and the border areas.
  • The importance of the Tibet issue at the highest levels in China was underlined by a meeting of the top Politburo led by Party Secretary Xi Jinping on July 30. The issue of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation was raised in the official media as a critical element of the PRC’s “sovereignty and national security”.
  • The formation of a powerful new central group for ‘United Front’ work – the Party department involved in dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives until talks stalled in January 2010 – is likely to indicate an upgrading of the department and a strengthening of control.
  • An agreement formalizing cooperation on security and ‘political stability’ – a political term associated with a dramatic expansion of military and police powers – across Tibetan areas in the PRC was made in Lhasa on July 10.
  • The new developments, which focus on a hardline approach to the Dalai Lama and struggle against ‘separatism’ set the tone for a key high-level strategy meeting rumored to be imminent that is intended to set Tibet policy for the coming decade. Linked to this, there is speculation that China’s Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping may visit Tibet in the next few weeks.

Mass troop movements in Tibet

This footage, captured on July 27 (2015), of troop movements in Shigatse, Tibet Autonomous Region, shows a convoy of vehicles with red banners with propaganda slogans.

Images and footage have emerged of major convoys of troops in transit in Lhasa and Shigatse (Chinese: Rikaze) in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) in Qinghai, in July. While the purpose of some of the convoys appears to have been propaganda and intimidation, some of the troop movements may have been linked to major military exercises. The Chinese state media announced a joint military drill with live firing on Monday (August 10) on the Tibetan plateau in Sichuan (Xinhua, August 11, 2015).[1]

The footage depicts trucks full of armed troops passing through Lhasa near the Potala Palace and a main street in Shigatse. The vehicles have red banners on the side of the vehicles bearing slogans in Chinese characters including: “To defend security and stability in Tibet”; “A healthy civilian and peaceful society is the will of the people”; “Sincerely loyal to the Party and unswervingly work for its mission”.[2]

Footage taken towards the end of July in Lhasa of troops moving along the main area with the Potala Palace in the background.

No air cover was reported by sources who observed the various convoys, and one source said that no troop movements of this scale had been observed in the areas before.

One of the troop convoys in the TAR consisted of more than 200 vehicles, including several tanks either on wheels or caterpillar tracks, travelling from Lhasa in the direction of Bayi, which is the prefectural capital of Nyingtri/Kongpo (Chinese: Linzhi) and a major base of the armed forces in Tibet close to the border with India.[3] The convoy included “bridges on wheels” – portable bridges to be dismantled and used for heavy vehicles crossing rivers or in areas affected by landslides.[4]

The purpose of the troop movements is not known, although it is likely to be a combination of conveying propaganda, overt intimidation and involvement in major military exercises.

The Chinese state media announced this week that a joint military drill entered “live fire stage” “in a plateau area” in Sichuan, organized by the People’s Liberation Army Chengdu Military Area Command, which oversees Tibetan areas including the sensitive border with India. Code-named ‘Joint Action-2015D’, Xinhua reported that it was the “first of five similar drills that will involve a total of more than 140,000 soldiers from over 140 PLA regiments of various types.” (Xinhua, August 11, 2015).

There has been a strong emphasis in the official press about the strengthening of control mechanisms at a time when the CCP authorities are preparing for the major 50th anniversary of their foundation of the TAR. While this is to be marked throughout August, the main date for the official celebration is September 1.[5] Sources have reported tightened security in every sphere, including instructions on the importance of ‘stability’ conveyed to Tibetan trade organisations, business and tourist agencies and an increase in police checkpoints. Travel permits to the TAR are not being issued for at least the first week of September, according to a report posted on the website prweb.com on Jul 26, citing Tibet tourism bureau.[6]

The scale of the military movements in several different areas and tightened security across the TAR has also heightened speculation about an imminent visit of Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping to Tibet, according to various sources and comments circulating on social media.[7]

Among the convoy in Rebkong was this white military vehicle.

Among the convoy in Rebkong was this white military vehicle.

Another view of troops moving through Rebkong on July 27 (2015).

Another view of troops moving through Rebkong on July 27 (2015).



‘Long-term stability’ emphasis at Politburo meeting

A meeting of the Chinese Politburo on July 30 presided over by Xi Jinping asserted the continued “anti-separatist” hardline approach by the authorities in Tibet, with Xinhua stating that “safeguarding national unity and enhancing ethnic unity” should be emphasized in order to achieve “long-term stability”.[8] It was the second Politburo meeting in a period of ten days, discussing issues of China’s economy and development. The emphasis on Tibet policy indicates it is a matter of prominent concern at the highest levels of the CCP.

Given the limited details released about the behind closed doors meeting, it is not possible to confirm whether Party control over the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation was discussed.[9]

Earlier last month the state media had released a statement objecting to the Dalai Lama’s comments in the New York Times on his own reincarnation. The state media report confirmed that the CCP authorities view this as “an important issue concerning sovereignty and national security.” (Xinhua, July 19, 2015).[10]

The Dalai Lama, who turned 80 on July 6, said recently: “The Chinese Communist Party is pretending that they know more about the reincarnation system than the Dalai Lama.”[11]

The significance of the Tibet issue to the Party was emphasized in an editorial in the Chinese-language publication Legal Daily, which stated: “Last year was the 20th anniversary of the beginning of partnered aiding Tibet,[12] this year is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and next year is the 65th anniversary of the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. Against a backdrop of the convergence of these important points, central authorities have given the highest priority to making decisions about the development of Tibet.”[13]

The CCP prioritises development, infrastructure construction and resource extraction as key elements of its strategic objectives in Tibet, casting Tibetan support for the Dalai Lama and protection of Tibetan national identity as obstacles to its ambitions to re-shape the Tibetan plateau for its own purposes and ensure its dominance.

Upgrading of United Front strengthens control, sets agenda

After the Politburo meeting, the state media also announced the formation of a leading group for United Front work – the Party department involved in dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives until talks stalled in January 2010. The United Front Work Department oversees the implementation of Party policy toward China’s ethnic and religious groups, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and outside organisations, among other functions.[14]

It is not yet known whether Xi Jinping will head the new ‘central leading group’ of the United Front, but the development is likely to indicate an upgrading of the department and a strengthening of control. One of the key priorities of the United Front Work Department is maintain a hardline position on Tibet, with a core mission of ‘struggle’ against the Dalai Lama. The leading group in the Party bureaucracy charged with Tibet policy is directed by the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of the United Front.[15]

The Politburo meeting on July 30 and an additional meeting in Lhasa on July 10 to coordinate security policy across all Tibetan areas of the PRC have set the frame for a Sixth Tibet Work Forum which is rumored to be imminent. There have only been five such strategy meetings since the Chinese took over Tibet in 1949-50.[16] The Fifth Work Forum in January, 2010 – the first since 2001 – was attended by more than 300 of China’s most senior Party, government and military leaders and set the cycle of policy for the subsequent years.

While the Fourth Work Forum focused on the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Fifth included all Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces – encompassing the eastern Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham. Official statements tended before to characterize only the Tibet Autonomous Region as ‘Tibet,’ although Tibetan areas incorporated in four other provinces are defined as ‘Tibetan autonomous’ prefectures and counties. Uniformity of policy throughout Tibetan areas of the PRC has been emphasized since then, and was further underlined in a meeting in Lhasa on July 10 (2015).

According to a state media report in Chinese, the ‘strategy forum’ held on July 10 involved the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures incorporated into Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu signing a cooperation agreement on ‘stability’.[17] In Chinese political language, ‘stability’ is a coded reference to the need to crush any form of dissent and to ensure allegiance to the CCP authorities in order for the authorities to pursue their strategic and economic objectives on the plateau without impediment.

The meeting focused on strengthening of control across Tibetan areas, describing the meeting as the first “cross-regional local Tibet Work Forum”.[18]

In a further agenda-setting statement, on April 15 the Chinese government had issued a long and elaborately argued White Paper on Tibet which outlined the CCP’s political position on the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s status in great detail with a much harsher approach than in previous such statements. In the paper, circulated widely in the Chinese state media, the authorities went on the attack over the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach, which advocates for a genuine autonomy under the sovereignty of the PRC. It is notable that the Chinese authorities have issued more White Papers on Tibet than on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Inner Mongolia put together.

A month later, in May (2015), a conference of the United Front Work Department, the Party bureau behind the White Paper, was upgraded to the level of the central authorities. According to the Legal Daily, the changes in the status of these officials reflects the importance the central government attaches to United Front work. Legal Daily explained: “Why was the decision made at the Politburo meeting to set up a Central United Front Work Leading Group? Professor Zhu Lijia of the National School of Administration thinks you can find the answer in Xi Jinping’s speech during the May 20 meeting of the Central United Front Work Conference, in which Xi Jinping stressed that “Now, our Party historical position, facing the internal and external situation, is shouldering significant changes in our mission and tasks. The more we change, the more the United Front should develop, and the more the United Front work will be done well.”[19]

In the Communist Party bureaucracy, leading small groups function as powerful mechanisms to ensure implementation of policies established by their supervising leadership.[20] The leading small group on Tibet is headed by Yu Zhengsheng on the Politburo, who is also director of the Xinjiang Work Coordination Small Group.

Emphasis on ‘stability’ means crushing dissent, expanding violent crackdown

Director of the United Front Work Department Sun Chunlan visited Tibet on July 9-12 (2015), travelling to Labrang monastery in Gansu, and Tibetan areas in Sichuan and Qinghai.[21] During the visit, Sun Chunlan expressed her hope that Tibetan Buddhists should ‘promote patriotism’, which means allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party, and that Buddhist teachings should be “adaptable to core values of socialism in order to become an important force for national unification, ethnic unity and social stability.”[22]

In the current political climate in Tibet, almost any expression of Tibetan identity or culture not directly sanctioned by the state, no matter how moderate, can be characterized by the authorities as “creating instability” or “splittist” and therefore “criminal.” Definitions of what constitutes “criminal” activity are deliberately opaque, giving leeway for lower-level officials and security personnel to apply severe penalties.[23]

Tibetans in areas characterized as being “lacking in stability” can be subjected to harsh and violent reprisals. For instance, countless Tibetans in Driru (Chinese: Biru) in the Tibet Autonomous Region have been tortured and imprisoned for even mild expressions of views in the context of an ongoing crackdown. The India-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported this week that on the night of 5 August 2015, local county officials accompanied by People’s Armed Police (PAP) officers attacked several sleeping Tibetans in their homes with hammers, sticks, knives and stones apparently as a punishment for failing to organize the celebration of ‘Army Day’ on August 1.[24]

Promotion of PLA officers and military exercises

It has been noted in the Indian media that an announcement of the promotion of ten People’s Liberation Army officers, at least four of whom have served in Tibet, was made at around the same time as the Politburo meeting on July 30. The officers who were promoted to the highest rank of full General included Jinan Military Region Commander Zhao Zongqi who served over 20 years in Tibet, and the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Region Commanders, 60-year-old General Liu Yuejun and General Li Zuocheng. According to analyst Jayadeva Ranade, President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy: “The operational jurisdiction of both includes the Tibet region across India’s borders and both Commanders were in position at the time of the intrusions in the Depsang Plains and the Chumar area in Ladakh in April 2013 and September 2014 respectively.”[25]

Mr Ranade, a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, also said: “The promotions additionally point to the attention being given by the Chinese leadership to the Sino-Indian border and to steadily enhancing and consolidating military preparedness in Tibet.”[26]

Xinhua reported this week: “The PLA plans to complete more than 100 joint exercises involving over 50 army corps this year. Military experts consider joint exercises the most demanding training, as they require a high degree of coordination.” (Xinhua, August 11, 2015).
The International Campaign for Tibet believes that there is an urgent need to end the excessive and counter-productive military buildup in Tibet and limit the dominance of the security apparatus, factors that are intensifying the dangers in Tibet and undermining any genuine stability. The Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday this year should give the authorities pause to consider that policies in Tibet that vilify him and attack Tibetan culture, religion and Tibetan identity, are at the root cause of the current crisis, and that genuine Tibetan grievances must be addressed.
 

Footnotes
[1] The Xinhua report in English stated: “A joint military drill that started in late July entered a live fire stage on Monday in a plateau area in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. Coded ‘Joint Action-2015D,’ the drill was organized by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Chengdu Military Area Command.

[2] Translation into English by ICT of some of the banners that can be observed in the footage.

[3] Before he came to power as Party Secretary, Xi Jinping visited Bayi in 2011, where he “extended his greetings to the officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police Force and the police forces in Nyingchi, expressing his appreciation for their contributions to the social progress, ethnic unity and the improvement of local people’s lives in the area.” (China Daily, July 22, 2011, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/tibet2011/2011-07/22/content_12958006.htm).

[4] On August 2, images appeared in the state media of an emergency team of the Chinese People’s Armed Police that was sent to Nepal to repair a highway blocked by a landslide. According to official reports, China’s State Council and Central Military Commission dispatched 100 armed police officers for repair of the China-Nepal Highway. It is not thought that the troop convoys detailed in this report are linked to this specific operation.

[5] The state media reported that artists organized by China’s Central Television started a tour with a performance in Lhasa last week: http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/news/culture_news/1508/1117-1.htm

[6] Tibetan Review online, July 28, 2015, http://www.tibetanreview.net/china-to-suspend-tibet-travel-permits-during-50th-regional-autonomy-anniversary/

[7] President Xi will make a state visit to the United States in September based on the invitation of US President Barack Obama.

[8] Xinhua reported that the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Politburo met in Beijing on July 27 and 30 (2015). There has been much more coverage of the meeting in the Chinese language in Chinese media than in English in the Chinese state media. Coverage in Chinese includes: http://www.vtibet.com/xw_702/tt/201508/t20150802_323470.html and in English on July 31: http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20150731000142&cid=1101&MainCatID=0

[9] Asia News, an Italian Christian news service, cited an ‘anonymous source’ saying that “At the end of the meeting Xi Jinping said that the Communist Party would pick ‘the next Dalai Lama, period! If things do not go well, we are ready to take corrective action.’” Asia News, august 4, 2015: http://www.asianews.it/news-en/China%E2%80%99s-Communist-Party-will-pick-the-%E2%80%9Cnext-Dalai-Lama,-period!%E2%80%9D-34948.html#sthash.5C3Okucw.dpuf

[10] The article stated: “The title ‘Dalai Lama’ itself, which can be loosely rendered as ‘ocean of wisdom’, was officially conferred on the 5th Dalai Lama by the central Chinese government in 1653. Since then, all confirmations of the Dalai Lama have required approval by the central Chinese government, which has deemed the process an important issue concerning sovereignty and national security.” Xinhua online: http://www.china.org.cn/china/Off_the_Wire/2015-07/19/content_36095684.htm

[11] Reuters, July 13, 2015, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/dalai-lama-says-china-pr/1989338.html

[12] A reference to Party cadres sent to Tibet to work on implementing the CCP’s economic and strategic objectives.

[13] Legal Daily, July 31 (2015), translated into English from Chinese by ICT: http://www.legaldaily.com.cn/index/content/2015-07/31/content_6200183.htm. The article also stated: “In the meeting it was emphasized that Tibet work under the new circumstances, and a Xinhua report had three sections discussing this: further promoting Tibet’s economic and social development, and long-term stability work. Experts believe that devoting a Politburo meeting to the development of a region means the state will make even greater efforts to develop Tibet.”

[14] The Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) established a new bureau to handle Tibetan affairs in 2005 according to an article in Singtao Daily. The Tibetan affairs portfolio moved from the Second Bureau, which handles ethnic and religious affairs, to the new Seventh Bureau. Congressional-Executive Commission on China report, October 3, 2006, http://www.cecc.gov/publications/commission-analysis/communist-party-adds-tibetan-affairs-bureau-to-the-united-front

[15] Alice Miller, ‘More Already on the Central Committee’s Leading Small Groups’, China Leadership Monitor, no. 44, available at http://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/clm44am.pdf. Also see: ‘The CCP Central Committee’s Leading Small Groups’, Alice Miller, China Leadership Monitor, No. 26, http://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/CLM26AM.pdf

[16] ICT report, January 29, 2010 http://www.savetibet.org/top-level-meeting-in-beijing-sets-strategy-on-tibet/

[17] Report in Chinese, July 12, 2015: http://www.tibet.cn/news/xzxw/szfl/201507/t20150712_3498272.htm

[18] The report, in Chinese and translated by ICT, stated: “Qi Zhala, the Communist Party Secretary of Lhasa, pointed out that this meeting pioneered two firsts for conferences in the Tibetan areas. “This conference was the first time that the local Party Committees and government took the lead on initiatives, organized and held from the bottom up. And the first cross-regional local Tibet Work Forum pioneered a precedent for forums in the cross-regional Tibetan areas.” http://www.tibet.cn/news/xzxw/szfl/201507/t20150712_3498272.htm

[19] Legal Daily, July 31 (2015), translated into English from Chinese by ICT: http://www.legaldaily.com.cn/index/content/2015-07/31/content_6200183.htm

[20] Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said: “In terms of input to the most important policy matters, the [leading small groups] are much more important and powerful than the ministries. The more important a policy matter, the more likely that it will be made by the top leadership supported by a relevant leading small group of the Politburo,” Tsang was cited as saying in an article published in the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1409118/how-leading-small-groups-help-xi-jinping-and-other-party-leaders-exert Alice Miller distinguishes between three types of leading groups: Permanent small groups, which are the most important, highest-ranking, and most authoritative; term-oriented small groups, established to coordinate a specific task, and task-oriented small groups. See Alice Miller, ‘More Already on the Central Committee’s Leading Small Groups’, China Leadership Monitor, no. 44, available at http://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/clm44am.pdf.

[21] China-Tibet Online, July 12, 2015: http://eng.tibet.cn/2012sy/xw/201507/t20150714_3517862.html

[22] Ibid

[23] See ICT report, ‘The Teeth of the Storm’, June 14, 2015: http://www.savetibet.org/the-teeth-of-the-storm-lack-of-freedom-of-expression-and-cultural-resilience-in-tibet/

[24] The founding anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). TCHRD report, posted August 10, 2015, http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1sn82e5

[25] The Sunday Guardian, India, August 9, 2015, http://www.sunday-guardian.com/analysis/china-decides-on-issue-of-dalai-reincarnation

[26] ‘Xi Jinping Tightens Grip on Army, Ups Pressure on India’, New Indian Express, August 7, 2015, http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Xi-Jinping-Tightens-Grip-on-Army-Ups-Pressure-on-India/2015/08/07/article2961396.ece

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