Reports in China’s official media indicate that no one from the central government attended important celebrations held in Lhasa on May 23 to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the “17-Point Agreement,” a key treaty between the Chinese and Tibetan governments routinely cited by the Chinese authorities as the main legal and moral cornerstone of Beijing’s authority in Tibet. In contrast, celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in September 2005 were attended by Jia Qinglin, a member of the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee, the highest sanctum of political power in the PRC. In 2005, Mr. Jia led a 52-member delegation from the central government to Lhasa and delivered the event’s keynote speech. (ICT report, Chinese Government Marks 40th Anniversary of TAR – September 1, 2005.)
Jia Qinglin, who also heads the Tibet Work Coordination Group which oversees implementation of Beijing’s policies in Tibet, instead chaired a forum on the anniversary in Beijing on May 23. The forum was notable for the fact it was attended by arguably the most senior Tibetan figures in the PRC today – Pema Trinley, Chairman of the TAR government and Gyancain Norbu, the young man chosen by the Chinese Communist Party to be the 11th Panchen Lama – who otherwise might be expected to have attended celebrations in Lhasa.
Given the highly opaque and factional nature of Chinese politics, coupled with the political sensitivities surrounding the Tibet issue, the significance of who did or did not attend the celebrations in Lhasa can only be speculated upon.
The most senior figure reported to be in attendance for the May 23 Lhasa celebrations was Zhang Qingli, the combative Party Secretary of the TAR. If any significance were to be placed on the fact that no central government officials were in Lhasa for the anniversary celebrations, the most obvious conclusion would be that their absence was intended as a deliberate snub to Zhang.
Speculation about Zhang Qingli’s future in the TAR has remained intense since the unprecedented protests of March 2008. His open hostility towards the Dalai Lama and his determination to push through deeply unpopular security and social policies are regarded by many Tibetans and other observers as key causes of the resentment that led to the protests of 2008. Compared to his predecessors in the position of Party Secretary of the TAR, Zhang Qingli has appeared relatively frequently in the national and international media, repeatedly asserting the official line that the 2008 protests were instigated by the Dalai Lama and his supporters, and that the vast majority of Tibetans continue to readily embrace China’s policies.
However, Zhang’s dogmatic adherence to the official line may have caused some embarrassment for Beijing. For instance, the tone and nature of his attacks on the “Dalai Lama clique” during the Olympic Torch relay ceremony in Lhasa in June 2008 brought a rare rebuke from the International Olympic Committee, which said in a statement that it “regrets that political statements were made during the closing ceremony of the torch relay in Tibet.” (ICT report, International Olympic Committee sets precedent with reprimand for Tibet Party boss – June 26, 2008) Tibetan bloggers, usually extremely careful in their use of language, were unusually critical of Zhang’s comments. One writer, in a November 2008 posting entitled “The Stupid Zhang Qingli,” wrote that “Turning the Lhasa Olympic torch relay ceremony into a ‘struggle session’ against the Dalai Lama not only made [Zhang Qingli] lose his own personal demeanor, it was also seriously damaging to the state’s Tibet policies and the state’s image in the world over its treatment of ethnic minorities.” (ICT report, A Great Mountain Burned by Fire – March 2009, p. 112)
More recently, Zhang Qingli’s assertions that the TAR would be closed to foreign tourists during the March 14 anniversary of the 2008 protests over “safety concerns” due to cold weather and a lack of available hotel rooms were met with considerable incredulity. (AP, a href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9532608″ target=”_blank”>Tour agents: Tibet closed to foreigners in March – March 7, 2011)
Another possible indicator of Beijing’s waning support for Zhang Qingli could be seen in his recent travels. Less than a week before the May 23 celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the “17-Point Agreement,” which had been built up in the TAR’s official media for several months, Zhang Qingli was in New Zealand and Australia as part of a small delegation promoting official versions of China’s record in Tibet. (“Senior Chinese Official Outlines Situation in Tibet,” Xinhua, May 18, 2011.) It is striking that Zhang should be absent from Lhasa so soon before the celebrations, especially for such a routine propaganda mission – a similar mission to the Czech Republic in late May 2011 was headed by Zhang Yun, described in official reports as “an expert with the China Tibetology Research Center” with no political ranking at all. (Xinhua, Tibetans religious freedom fully guaranteed: China’s Tibet expert – May 31, 2011)
According to ICT’s sources, Zhang’s visits to New Zealand and Australia were so low-key that several parliamentarians in New Zealand with a keen interest in Tibet weren’t even aware he was in the country, and they were said to be “furious” that they didn’t have an opportunity to meet him.
Nevertheless, despite the apparent evidence that Zhang Qingli’s stock is rapidly falling in Beijing, well-placed observers in discussions with ICT have urged caution when attempting to interpret these and other indicators of politicians’ standing in the PRC. For example, the 60th anniversary fell during a period when the Chinese authorities have reduced the levels of aggressive propaganda across the PRC compared to previous years, and in the specific case of Tibet, there’s bound to be an awareness at the highest levels of the Party and government that aggressive propaganda has the potential to stir up resentment and undermine rapid development policies domestically, as well as create distrust, resentment and fear of China internationally.
Senior TAR Party and government officials in Lhasa
In Lhasa, Zhang Qingli was among 14 senior local officials taking center stage during the official ceremonies. According to official press coverage and the captions to photographs of the ceremonies in the official Tibet Daily, the 14 people identified on the flag dais in front of the Potala Palace (see picture above), are:
- Zhang Qingli (Party Secretary of the TAR);
- Pagbalha Geleg Namgyal (Chairman of the TAR Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference);
- Jampa Phuntsok (Deputy Secretary of the TAR Party Committee, Chairman of the TAR People’s Congress);
- Hao Peng (Deputy Secretary of TAR Party Committee, Deputy Chairman of the TAR Government, Secretary of the Politics and Law Committee);
- Legqog (retired, former Chairman of the TAR Government, former Chairman of the TAR People’s Congress);
- Lang Youliang (Maj Gen) (Political Commissar for the Tibet Military District);
- Pasang Dhondup (TAR Party Standing Committee member, Secretary of the TAR CPPCC Party group, Deputy Chairman of the TAR CPPCC);
- Wu Yingjie (TAR Party Standing Committee member, Deputy Chairman of the TAR Government);
- Cui Yuying (f) (TAR Party Standing Committee member, Director of the Propaganda Department);
- Lobsang Gyaltsen (TAR Party Standing Committee member, Executive Deputy Chairman of the TAR Government);
- Jin Shubo (TAR Party Standing Committee member, Secretary of the Party Discipline Committee);
- Yin Deming (TAR Party Standing Committee member, Director of the Party Organization Department);
- Gonpo Tashi (TAR Party Standing Committee member, Secretary General)
- Chodak (TAR Party Standing Committee member, Director of the United Front Work Department).
It is not entirely clear from official news reports who out of the above 14 people make up the normal complement of four Deputy Secretaries. Two are listed as such – Hao Peng and Jampa Phuntsok – while a third is Pema Trinley, the Chairman of the TAR Government who attended the forum in Beijing hosted by Jia Qinglin to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the “17-Point Agreement.” The fourth Deputy Secretary might be Legqog, who despite formally retiring as a Deputy Party Secretary and Chairman of the TAR People’s Congress in January 2010, is still listed as a Deputy Secretary on a reliable online database of Chinese Party and government officials (www.renwu360.cn). Similarly, it is not entirely clear which of the 14 individuals listed above – along with Pema Trinley – are included in the usual complement of 13 people on the TAR Party Standing Committee.
The five individuals seen about to lay a floral presentation at the foot of the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet opposite the Potala Palace, are listed in the accompanying caption as: Zhang Qingli, Pabalha Geleg Namgyal, Jampa Phuntsok, Hao Peng and Major General Lang Youliang. There is no indication in any of the accompanying press reports why these five individuals were designated to offer the presentation.
Senior figures attending celebrations in Beijing
The meeting held in Beijing to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the “17-Point Agreement” was hosted by Jia Qinglin in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, and entitled the “Capital Forum of People From All Circles Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.” The official photograph of the event, which featured prominently on the front page of the following day’s Tibet Daily, shows Jia Qinglin sitting among four other senior officials, including Du Qinglin, Director of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) on the far right of the picture. The UFWD is the Party body put forward to represent the Chinese authorities in the dialog between Beijing and representatives of the Dalai Lama, despite its stated purpose of working “in coordination with relevant departments to struggle against activities of splitting the Motherland by the Dalai clique and domestic and foreign hostile forces.” (ICT report: “A Great Mountain Burned by Fire,” March 2009, p. 148) Du Qinglin is also a member of the key Tibet Work Coordination Group.
Other officials reported to have attended the forum in Beijing as well as deliver speeches, were:
- Chen Changzhi, Deputy Chairman of the 11th Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Chen is not known by ICT to have had any previous public involvement in the issue of Tibet. His role as Deputy Chairman of the committee overseeing the National People’s Congress – China’s parliament – may involve steering legislation relevant to Tibet.
- Ma Kai, Secretary General of the State Council and Deputy Chairman of the Tibet Work Coordination Group. Ma’s role on Tibet is thought to be one of coordinating the various state-level ministries’ involvement on Tibet. ICT has not monitored any public statements by him on Tibet, although he has on occasion attended Tibet-themed exhibitions in Beijing.
- Chen Kuiyuan, Dean and Party Secretary of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Chen took over from Hu Jintao as TAR Party Secretary in 1992, and remained in the post until 2000, overseeing a significant hardening of China’s policies towards the Dalai Lama, and the role of religion in Tibetan society. It is not clear what formal involvement in Tibet policy that Chen Kuiyuan still has, if any at all, either through his previous postings or in his current position at CASS – a key government think tank.
- Ragdi, former Chairman of the TAR Government, and former Chairman of the TAR People’s Congress. Although retired from positions in the TAR since 2003, Ragdi is thought to remain influential on the Tibet issue in Beijing. He spent his entire political career in the TAR – from 1962 – and is a key figure in Tibet’s modern political history.
- Yin Fatang, former military officer and TAR Party Secretary. Yin Fatang was among the first PLA soldiers to advance into Tibet in 1950, and then served as the TAR Party Secretary from 1980 to 1985. Yin is credited with restoring social and political order over the TAR in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, and is thought to now play an influential – although informal – advisory role in Tibetan policy formulation.
- Lhagpa Phuntsok, Director of the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing. Lhagpa Phuntsok headed the TAR Academy of Social Sciences from 1983 to 1991, then as Vice Chairman of the TAR Government until 2000, and then moved to his current position as the China Tibetology Research Center. He is a prolific writer of Party-approved histories of Tibet, as well as papers on Tibetan culture and medicine.
- Gyancain Norbu, the Chinese Communist Party-designated 11th Panchen Lama. Gyancain Norbu rarely travels to Tibet, instead spending most of his time in Beijing where he serves as Vice Chairman of the Buddhist Association of China, and as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – the advisory body to China’s national parliament. Few Tibetans hold him in high religious esteem because of his strong affiliations to the Party and his apparent support for unpopular policies; others, however, suggest he may yet emerge as a more sympathetic spokesperson and advocate for the Tibetan people.