Tibetan becomes new Lhasa Party Secretary; updates on leadership in Tibetan areas and the current climate in Lhasa

  • The appointment of a Tibetan, Che Dalha (Chinese: Qizhala), to the politically important position of Party Secretary of Lhasa Municipality (Xinhua, November 16) re-establishes a convention of ethnic Tibetans holding this post although it does not signal any broader shift in policy. While Che Dalha’s entire career has been spent in a Tibetan region of Yunnan Province, and while he is regarded by some in Yunnan as alert to issues facing Tibetans, there are no expectations among sources that he has any intention of championing Tibetan grievances.
  • Meng Jianzhu, China’s Minister for Public Security, visited Kirti Monastery in late November, according to a posting on the Ministry’s web site. The report on the visit made no mention of the nine self-immolations to have taken place in and around the monastery, and instead focused on Meng Jianzhu’s expressions of support and sympathy to police officers for the physical difficulties associated with working at altitude in Tibet.
  • Zhu Weiqun, Executive Deputy Director of the United Front Work Department – the Party body that largely oversees Tibet policy – warned again of a “long-term and protracted” “struggle” against the “Dalai clique” on a visit to Lhasa last week during the continued crackdown.
  • New Tibet Autonomous Region Party Secretary Chen Quanguo said that monks would be brought into the social services and welfare net, by saying that monks can expect pensions and benefits. The incorporation of monks into the welfare net may be another area in which the autonomy of monasteries in Tibetan areas is eroded.
Che Dalha appointed Party Secretary of Lhasa Municipality

Che Dalha was announced in the Chinese official press in Lhasa on November 18 to have replaced Qin Yizhi as Party Secretary of Lhasa Municipality. Qin, a Han Chinese cadre who had been in the post since September 2006, has apparently completed a routine five-year posting for high-ranking Party positions. In the current political climate in Tibet and China, Che Dalha’s appointment is highly unlikely to be intended by the Chinese authorities to signal a shift in China’s political profile in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) or in Greater Tibet.

Lhasa Municipality is a jurisdiction of seven county-level administrations an entire Party and governmental tier below the TAR; therefore, while Che Dalha is the Party Secretary of Lhasa Municipality, he is still significantly junior in status to the recently appointed TAR Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo. Nevertheless, given the cultural and political importance of Lhasa to all Tibetans, it is notable that a Tibetan official should be appointed to the top Party position there.

Prior to November 2010, Che Dalha’s entire career had been spent in Dechen (Chinese: Diqing) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Yunnan Province, part of the Tibetan region of Kham. Che Dhala was head of the Dechen TAP government when the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoys visited the region in 2003, and is likely therefore to be aware of the Dalai Lama’s aspirations for the Tibetan people. According to a source close to ICT with strong family ties to the area, Che Dhala is well-regarded in Dechen for his successes in overseeing rapid economic development in the region while also remaining an advocate for the promotion of the Tibetan language and other facets of Tibetan culture.

It could be speculated that the relative social and political calm in Dechen TAP marked Che Dhala out as a capable and politically reliable Tibetan official whose skills could be utilized in the more challenging political climate of Lhasa. However, the same source who noted Che Dhala is well-regarded in Dechen also notes that he has been through many years of training in Beijing, and states that he is extremely unlikely to take Tibetans’ concerns into special consideration just because he himself is Tibetan.

Che Dalha was first appointed to a position in the TAR in November 2010 when he was installed as head of the TAR United Front Work Department (UFWD) – an influential organization within the Party with offices at every level of government in the TAR that is broadly responsible for instilling ideological orthodoxy among Party and government workers. Nothing in his previous work experience suggests he was known as an enforcer of Party discipline, while the shortness of his tenure at the UFWD further suggests the post was used as a brief stepping stone for acclimatizing himself to Lhasa’s political environment before assuming the post of Party Secretary.

The appointment of a Tibetan to the position Party Secretary marginally redresses what had become a glaring lack of senior Tibetan officials in Tibet. Soon after Qin Yizhi’s appointment in September 2006, New York-based Human Rights Watch published research indicating that there were fewer Tibetan officials on the Chinese Communist Party’s Lhasa Municipality Party Committee than at any time since 1966, and that Qin Yizhi was the first non-Tibetan official to hold the post of Lhasa Party Secretary since 1980 – his seven predecessors were all Tibetan. (China: Fewer Tibetans on Lhasa’s Key Ruling Body – Lowest Representation Since 1966)

While several Tibetans have held the most senior government position in the TAR – including the current incumbent TAR Governor Pema Trinley – none have held the far more senior post of TAR Party Secretary.

There is nothing in any of the available official sources to suggest that Che Dhala’s appointment represents any kind of policy-led attempt to shift the ethnic balance in Lhasa Municipality’s Party structures back towards greater Tibetan representation. Neither is there any indication yet of where Qin Yizhi is likely to transferred; official reports state only that he is no longer serving as Lhasa Party Secretary while he apparently retains his position as a member of the TAR Standing Committee, which strongly suggests he is likely to stay on in the TAR in some capacity.

Che Dalha’s post as Director of the TAR UFWD is filled by Gonpo Tashi, a Tibetan cadre from Nagchu (Chinese: Naqu) in the TAR, who also served as Party Secretary of Lhasa Municipality from 2003 to 2006 – preceding Qin Yizhi – and who was then appointed to the TAR Party Committee.

Meng Jianzhu visits Kirti Monastery

Meng Jianzhu, China’s Minister for Public Security, visited Kirti Monastery in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture during a tour of Sichuan Province in late November. Nine of the 13 self-immolations to have taken place in Tibet since February 2009 were by monks or former monks from Kirti Monastery. The monastery has been the target of a severe security crackdown since March 2008, when at least 10 peaceful protestors were shot dead outside the monastery by Chinese security forces.

Aside from a July 2011 visit to Lhasa by Xi Jinping, assumed to be the next president of China, to address celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the “peaceful liberation of Tibet”, Meng is one of the most senior central government officials to visit anywhere in Tibet since he himself went to Lhasa in late March 2008 in the immediate aftermath of the March 10 protests. (ICT report, Tibetan Protests Continue and Spread Further: Official and Estimated Detentions Surpass 2,000 – March 27, 2008.) Meng also sits on the Central Tibet Work Coordination Working Group, a body of at least nine senior government and Party officials tasked with reviewing central government policy implementation in Tibet. (ICT report, Tibet at a Turning Point, p. 111 – August 2008.)

His tour to Sichuan included a visit to a police station in Ngaba County – where Kirti Monastery is located – as well as visiting a police station within another monastery in Marthang (Chinese: Hongyuan) County.

The only report of his visit observed by ICT, published on the Ministry of Public Security’s website (In Chinese, Meng Jianzhu emphasizes while inspecting Sichuan – December 1, 2011) makes no mention of the self-immolations or other protests in the region, and he is instead quoted at length praising army, paramilitary police and ordinary police for “fighting hard on the frontline of upholding stability.”

He continued, “For many years, you comrades have fulfilled your duties, been brave and resolute and unafraid of hardship, and by sweating and toiling to promote ethnic unity and uphold social stability, you have made an important contribution. You have obeyed the Party, served the people, been dedicated, and been a corps that at key moments has been reliable, loyal, winning, and one that the Party and people can completely trust – loyal guards, worthy of the Party and the people.”

In what were termed as “discussions” with monks at Kirti Monastery, Meng claimed that historically, Tibetan Buddhism has been a major force for “unifying the Motherland,” and urged the monks “to continue the glorious tradition of Love the Country Love Religion and actively dedicate your strengths to ethnic unity, economic development and social progress.” There is no indication that Meng’s visit was used to develop any genuine understanding of the crisis in the Ngaba area, where the authorities’ hardline approach has created a climate of terror and continued tension.

Zhu Weiqun visits Lhasa, under intense militarization

Zhu Weiqun, Executive Deputy Director of the UFWD – and head of the bureau within the UFWD with special responsibility for Tibet – visited Lhasa in early December, and addressed a meeting of most of the TAR’s senior Party and government officials.

Zhu has been closely involved with the Tibet issue since the early 1990s, and was even involved in some unknown capacity with the Panchen Lama dispute that resulted in the disappearance of the six-year old boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation – Gedhun Choekyi Nyima – and his replacement with the Chinese Communist Party’s candidate, Gyancain Norbu.

Zhu Weiqun is also a key member of the Chinese delegation that has met with representatives of the Dalai Lama on 10 occasions since negotiations between both sides re-started in 2002, and he also sits – with Meng Jianzhu among others – on the Central Tibet Work Coordination Working Group. (ICT report, Tibet at a Turning Point, p. 114 – August 2008.)

Zhu Weiqun is one of the highest-ranking officials in China to routinely speak to the national and international media on the issue of Tibet – albeit in very formulaic terms. For instance, speaking at the Chinese embassy in Brussels on December 12 during an ongoing visit to the EU, Zhu described EU criticisms of China’s policies in Tibet “irresponsible” at a time when closer economic cooperation is needed between China and the EU, and he criticized the decision by the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament in Brussels to invite Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay, the newly elected Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in Exile, to address the committee. (New Europe, EU Criticism of China dismissed by Beijing – December 12, 2011, New Europe.)

In comments reported in the Tibet Daily on December 6, Zhu said “The central government’s assessment [Chinese: dingxing] of the Dalai clique will not change, and the direction of the struggle against the Dalai clique will not change. Our struggle against the Dalai clique is long-term, protracted and complex, and sometimes it is very intense. […] We must deeply analyze new situations and new issues in upholding social stability and the struggle with the Dalai clique, relying closely on cadres and the masses of all nationalities to resolutely, quickly, decisively and thoroughly smash all attempts to disrupt Tibet’s stability and harm the unification of the motherland. […] To the greatest possible extent, we must unify patriotic religious personages, broadening the patriotic united front and bringing into play their positive role in promoting development and upholding stability, bringing many more people onto our side and many less people to the enemy’s side.”

Zhu’s visit comes at a time of sustained crackdown and intense militarization in Lhasa. A Western observer who visited the city recently reported that “Lhasa is in a state of armed military, police, and special forces (Chinese: te jing) control. The town, especially – if not only – historical downtown is heavily patrolled and check posts are in every corner of the area between the Jokhang temple (including the mosque) and the Potala Palace. The Barkhor circular road has at least 19 police posts with four to six security armed personnel.”

The same visitor reported that tighter restrictions have been imposed that are aimed at discouraging popular religious practice in Lhasa. The visitor said: “The main entrance to the Jokhang temple alone where visitors and devotees enter the temple and many perform full-body prostrations has three security check-posts manned by a number of soldiers and special forces. Tibetan devotees who wish to enter the Jokhang to perform religious practice and who enter for free have to comply with a series of forced rules introduced by local authorities. To access the temple residents and devotees have to stay in line within metal fences. Due to the high number of devotees, the line often reaches hundreds of yards in length and to be able to get in in the morning some Tibetans say that most people start to get in line already at 4:00 am. On the other hand, tourists and visitors both Chinese and Western, pay a fee of 85 RMB (US $13) to enter from a different line that is faster and bypasses hundreds of Tibetan devotees.

“Most of the Jokhang temple rooms and spaces once available for visits and religious practice are now closed to both visitors and devotees. Only the inner sanctum is still open to tourism and devotional practice. These restrictions and tight control over religious practice are considered unbearable by many Tibetans.”

In a recent blog entitled, ‘Lhasa, Lhasa’, the Tibetan writer Woeser wrote: “During the era of China’s reform and opening up, Lhasa was generally where the Tibetan elites wanted to be. I met many young Tibetans who could have stayed in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai after graduation but they preferred to go and live and work in Lhasa, which at the time was very far from any hustle and bustle. Lhasa at the time drew Tibetans from all over like a magnet. Businessmen from Kham and Amdo flooded into Lhasa to do business and monks came to Lhasa’s holy sites and, in accordance with tradition, to study at the Three Great Monasteries. […] It is not the same now. A Khampa mother and father came to see their daughter who had married a Lhasan and were extremely sad about their daughter when they left because she would be living in a city under the muzzle of a gun. The streets are lined with soldiers and Buddhist monks are being desecrated; Lhasa has changed from being a holy city to a fallen place of dirt and danger.” (Published in English on the website High Peaks, Pure Earth).

Chen announces incorporation of monks into China’s welfare benefits system

Chen Quanguo, the recently appointed TAR Party Secretary, was reported on November 13 to have announced government plans to offer pensions, health insurance and other welfare benefits to monks in the TAR. (Global Times, Government to bankroll pension and medicare in Tibetan temples – November 13, 2011.)

The move was reported at face value by some Western media (for instance on BBC radio news). But it is not known whether Chen’s announcement was made out of political expediency, or whether it is simply bringing Tibetans in line with pension and welfare reforms that are ongoing across the PRC. Consequent reporting of the measures in the official Chinese language media stated that while all monks and nuns would be eligible to join the system on a voluntary basis, those monks and nuns who excelled in ‘patriotic education’ would receive supplements from the government towards their fees. (In Chinese: Tibet Daily, Wu Yingjie at autonomous regional “Interim measures for the participation of monks and nuns at monasteries in social security” requests at consultation forum – November 23, 2011)

In an indication that the move may be designed to improve relationships with officials and the authorities in what has been a tense political climate since March, 2008, Chen Guanguo described the news as “a move to boost national unity along with regional development and stability” in the Global Times article.

Some analysts fear that the move may be designed to further erode the autonomy of monasteries in Tibetan areas through establishing a further layer of state bureaucracy.

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