Xi Jinping cements grip on power at Party Congress: new leaders revealed and their influence on Tibet policy

  • China’s 19th Party Congress came to a close last week, revealing a new leadership committee and breaking with tradition by not including a clear successor to Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping. The new configuration cements Xi Jinping’s grip on power for the next five years and potentially beyond, with Xi’s ideology approved for incorporation into the Party Constitution as ‘Xi Jinping thought’.
  • In his marathon three and a half hour work report to the Party Congress, Xi Jinping underlined his determination not to allow “to separate any part of Chinese territory from China”, a political term linked to the crushing of dissent and enforcement of compliance to Party rule.
  • Among the new figures on China’s top Politburo Standing Committee, the seven leaders who now govern China, is an official who served in a Tibetan area, Zhao Leji, and was active in the “political struggle against the Dalai Lama”, according to the state media. Another among the seven, Wang Huning, has maintained a close involvement with Tibet and is also likely to be extremely influential on policy.
  • Four Tibetans, including Che Dalha (Chinese: Qi Zhala), who has interacted with foreign leaders including former US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, gained places in the Party leadership at the Central Committee level.
  • On the sidelines of the Congress, during a press conference, Zhang Yijiong, Executive Deputy Minister of the United Front Work Department, castigated the Dalai Lama as a ‘separatist’ – despite his known position seeking genuine autonomy – and warned foreign leaders not to meet him.
  • Zhang also revealed an unprecedented position on Tibetan religion, describing Tibetan Buddhism as originating in China – countering what Xi Jinping has earlier acknowledged, which is that it originated in ancient India. This reflects the CCP’s efforts to assert its leadership in the ‘globalisation’ of Buddhism, undermining the position of India where Buddhism originated, and using religion as an instrument to achieve political goals. New and more restrictive measures to ‘Sinicize’ Buddhism were set in place before the Party Congress.
  • Zhang – who will likely have a strong say in Tibet policy – was formerly based in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Qinghai (where he headed a major state-run enterprise for production of lithium, essential for smartphone and laptop batteries, and key to China’s strategic imperatives in controlling Tibet).
  • Following the standoff with India prior to the Party Congress, Xi Jinping sent a message this week to a Tibetan family of herders close to the sensitive Indian border with Arunachal Pradesh urging them to “safeguard” the territory, underscoring the strategic importance of Tibet and its border area at the highest levels, as well as sending a signal to India.

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Xi Jinping’s ‘new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ aims to make China a leading global power by 2050, amid a concentration of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party’s powers and an unprecedented expansion of state control. In his opening speech, Xi Jinping presented this authoritarian vision as a model for the world; a model that should be openly opposed by democratic governments worldwide.”

“China’s actions in Tibet continue to reflect this authoritarian drive, but despite decades of oppression the Chinese government has failed in winning the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people. Cultural Revolution-era rhetoric and totalitarian methods have ultimately failed to erase Tibetans’ unique identity, cultural resilience, and faith in the Dalai Lama. It is therefore of urgent importance that the Chinese government re-evaluates its policies on Tibet, and seeks to find a negotiated and sustainable solution with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. Oppression will only increase resistance.”

Party Congress message disseminated across Tibet

The Party Congress period had been a focus of propaganda efforts in Tibet since the beginning of the year,[1] and Tibet – which is more than 1,000 miles away from the Chinese capital – was closed to foreigners from October 18, and under tight lockdown. A series of intimidating military drills were held in the buildup to the meetings in Beijing, compounded by systematic blocking of communications and intrusive ideological campaigns. (See ICT’s report at https://www.savetibet.org/new-developments-in-chinas-tibet-policy-as-communist-partys-19th-congress-begins/).

Images circulated online of Tibetan monks and schoolchildren listening to Xi Jinping’s speech, and Party officials in rural areas disseminating the proceedings of the Party Congress to nomads and herders.

Demonstrating the significance of Tibet to the Chinese leadership as a border area, there has been widespread coverage in the state media this week of a message from Xi Jinping to Tibetan herders, encouraging a family living near the border with Arunachal Pradesh, India, to “to set down roots […], safeguard the Chinese territory and develop their hometown.”[2] The state media article reported that a Tibetan family living in Lhokha (Chinese: Shannan) prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region, in a remote village close to the border with Arunachal Pradesh, had written to Xi, prompting his statement.[3]

Letters from ordinary citizens rarely receive responses, but in this case indicate the priorities of the leadership in sending a message about the border with India. China claims Arunachal Pradesh, which borders the TAR, as part of the PRC, describing it as ‘southern Tibet’. Xi Jinping’s letter to the family of herders, who live in the small Himalayan village of Yulmay (Chinese: Yumai) did not refer to India directly, but praised the family’s efforts to “protect the Chinese territory.” The letter comes two months after India and China settled tensions over a disputed border area near the junction of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet known as Doklam (some say it is known in Tibetan as Droklam, the nomads’ path).[4]

Party officials equate political ‘stability’ – or control – in the TAR with the security of the entire PRC, partly because Tibet is an important border area.

Unprecedented position on Tibetan Buddhism indicates Party’s agenda on religion

At a press conference on the sidelines of the Party Congress, attended by Chinese and foreign journalists on October 21 (2017), Executive Deputy Head of the United Front Work Department Zhang Yijiong asserted that “Tibetan Buddhism originated in ancient China; it is a special form of religion that originated within China.”[5] This position, a barbed statement partially aimed at India, where Buddhism originated, is new; even Xi Jinping acknowledged in 2014 that: “Buddhism originated in ancient India. After it was introduced into China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with the indigenous Confucianism and Taoism and finally became […] Buddhism with Chinese characteristics.”[6]

Zhang Yijiong’s comments were a more histrionic assertion of the CCP’s narrative intending to show the pre-eminence of China as a global leader in Buddhism, through making the link between Chinese traditional culture and Buddhism. In this way, “Buddhism becomes a brick in the construction of Chinese nationalism”,[7] in the co-option of Tibetan Buddhism by the Chinese state to achieve its political objectives.[8]

Zhang Yijiong – who is likely to be vocal on Tibet policy from now on – also warned foreign leaders not to meet the Dalai Lama, describing him as someone who “betrayed the motherland” and as “a leader of a separatist group that is engaging in separatist activities”. The Dalai Lama has long stated that he seeks a genuine autonomy rather than independence. (See analysis by ICT’s Bhuchung Tsering, https://weblog.savetibet.org/2017/10/analyzing-chinese-official-zhang-yijiongs-remarks-on-dalai-lama-and-tibet/).[9] Indicating a continued hardline position Xi Jinping warned in his opening speech: “We will never allow anyone, any organisation or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”

Prior to the Party Congress, the Chinese state media announced a focus on the ‘Sinicization’ of religion, stating: “The direction of religions is to integrate them with Chinese culture” (Global Times, September 7, 2017).[10] The Buddhist community is one of the main targets of ‘Sinicization’ of religion, which represents a more far-reaching effort to mould and shape Tibetan Buddhism to the diktats of the Chinese Communist Party in line with a more entrenched regulatory framework that has already deepened religious oppression over the last decade.

It is likely that Zhang Yijiong will continue to speak out prominently on Tibet, not only because he has been promoted from alternate member of the 18th CCP Central Committee (CC) Secretariat to full member of the 19th CCP CC, but also because of his background in Tibet. Zhang Yijiong spent much of his career in the Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region, where he served as Deputy Party Secretary from 2006-10,[11] serving effectively as training for his current work for the United Front Work Department, the Party bureau responsible for aggressive propaganda work on Tibet as well as active control over Tibetan Buddhists and ideological campaigns.[12] He has emphasized the importance of the CCP’s aggressive ‘counter-terror’ drive, including on a visit to the TAR in 2014.[13]

While based in Qinghai, between 1996-1998, Zhang served as Vice Chairman (later Chairman), General Manager and Party Secretary of Qinghai Saline Lake Industrial Group, one of the top resource-based enterprises in Qinghai, focused on potassium fertilizer and lithium production. China controls all of Tibet’s resources, and the extraction of lithium is particularly important given the likelihood of a global boom in lithium-ion batteries for mobile phones and laptop computers, and for electric cars.[14] In 2016, Xi Jinping visited the biggest salt lake in the PRC, Tsakha (Chinese: Chaerhan) in the Tsaidam Basin, linked to the new focus of the leadership on the exploitation of Tibet’s lithium. Tsakha lake stands out for its high level of lithium salts.[15]

The new leaders and their links to Tibet

Two Chinese leaders appointed to the highest ranks of leadership in the CCP, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, have notable connections to Tibet and are therefore likely to have influence on Tibet policy.[16]

These leaders are Wang Huning, who has been a prominent head of research under three generations of Party leaders, and Zhao Leji, who was born in Xining and was Party Secretary of Qinghai between 2003 and 2007.

Wang Huning, who is listed as a member of all TAR delegations to the National People’s Congress and has been a member of TAR delegations to the National People’s Congress (NPC), is in charge of ideology, the propaganda apparatus and Party organisation, heading the secretive Central Policy Research Office. He has worked with Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and now continues to be influential under Xi Jinping.[17]

As Qinghai’s Party Secretary, Zhao Leji was prominent in efforts to “combat foreign hostile forces, in particular, the 14th Dalai Clique’s infiltration and sabotage activities in Qinghai Province”, according to the Chinese state media.[18]

Zhao Leji, 60, has been head of the Central Organization (personnel) Department since 2012, and is now appointed head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, meaning that he will head Xi Jinping’s ongoing ‘anti-corruption’ campaign, which has also been used to net political enemies. In Tibet, the campaign is being used in attempts to extinguish loyalty to the Dalai Lama, with Party officials “who have fantasies about the 14th Dalai Clique” being warned of punishment.[19]

Former Tibet Autonomous Region Party secretaries Zhang Qingli and Chen Quanguo continues as full members of the Central Committee. Zhang Qingli was known for his virulent attacks on the Dalai Lama, and for presiding over a deepened crackdown in Tibet from 2008.[20]

Four Tibetans found a place on the 19th Party Congress Central Committee: Lobsang Gyaltsen (Chinese: Losang Jamcan), Chair, TAR People’s Congress; Che Dalha (Qi Zhala), Governor, TAR, and with alternate members Norbu Thondup, Vice Governor, TAR and Yan Jinhai, Vice Governor, Qinghai.[21]

Lobsang Gyaltsen served in various roles in Lhasa before being promoted as Chair of the TAR in January 2013. A Tibetan from Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu, aka Qamdo) in the TAR, he is described by those who know him as a “dour ideologue”.[22]

It was notable that no ‘sixth generation’ leaders were appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee. Given the ages of the seven men in their sixties who stood on the platform at the conclusion of the Party Congress, there is no clear successor to Xi in the new leadership lineup.

There had been speculation of the rise at this Party Congress of Hu Chunhua, one of the ‘sixth generation’ of young leaders, who served in Tibet and is rumored to speak Tibetan, but that was quashed this week when he did not get a seat in the Politburo Standing Committee. He was also replaced from his post as Party boss of Guangdong province, China’s economic powerhouse, and replaced by a protege of President Xi Jinping.[23]

A major meeting following up from the 19th Party Congress will be held in the TAR from November 6, in which it may be possible to ascertain some of the key developments on Tibet emerging from the October meetings in Beijing.[24]


Footnotes:
[1] International Campaign for Tibet, ‘New crackdown on ‘hostile forces’ in Tibet in buildup to Party Congress’, August 11, 2017, https://www.savetibet.org/new-crackdown-on-hostile-forces-in-tibet-in-buildup-to-party-congress/

[2] Xinhua, ‘Xi encourages Tibetan herders to safeguard territory’, October 29, 2017, http://tibet.news.cn/english/2017-10/29/c_136713312.htm

[3] The message was further emphasized by the Party Secretary of the TAR, Wu Yingjie, in a meeting lauding the “19th Party Congress spirit”, according to a state media article in Chinese, China Tibet News, October 30, 2017, http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-10/30/content_797415.htm

[4] In the fifth week of the border tensions between China and India, in July, China released footage of a major military live-fire assault exercise in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Soldiers used flame-throwers, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns to strike bunkers and various types of heavy weapons, including mortars, self-propelled howitzers, multiple rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles in the display of fire-power, which also trialed a new type of tank. International Campaign for Tibet, ‘Major live fire drill testing new tanks in Tibet highlights political imperatives, military capacity on plateau’, July 21, 2017, https://www.savetibet.org/ict-inside-tibet-major-live-fire-drill-testing-new-tanks-in-tibet-highlights-political-imperatives-military-capacity-on-plateau/

[5] He went on to say that although it is true that it has been “influenced by other religions and other cultures” (a reference to India) “[…] it is not acquired religion. It is originated [sic] within China; it has its roots in China. So it is an example of being Chinese. It has Chinese orientation.”

[6] The speech was made at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in March 2014. For an English translation, see this UNESCO pdf file: http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/ERI/pdf/Speech_Xi_Jinping_English.pdf

[7] Koen Wellans, in a chapter entitled ‘Failed Secularization, New Nationalism and Governmentality: The rise of Buddhism in Post-Mao China’ in the book ‘Buddhist Modernities: Re-inventing Tradition in the Globalizing Modern World’, edited by Hanna Havnevik, Ute Hüsken, Mark Teeuwen, Vladimir Tikhonov, Koen Wellens, published by Routledge in 2016. In an article in The Wire in May (2017), P Stobdan, a former ambassador and a scholar of Asian affairs, observes: “Unsurprisingly, President Xi Jinping is not just asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea and expanding China’s connectivity project through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, he is also working to make China the world leader in Buddhism. Xi has had this idea for some time now – he started building a partnership between China’s communist party and the religion when he was only 29 years old, serving as a bureaucrat in provinces. The story began when he encountered Shi Youming, a Buddhist monk who was restoring ruined temples of Zhengding County in Hebei Province. Xi was probably also influenced by his father, Xi Zhongxun, who in 1980 had warned the party in his 11,000-word report ‘Document 19’ against banning religious activity, suggesting that this would alienate too many people. In fact, one of Xi’s father’s signature lines is said to have been, “If the people have faith, the nation has hope and the country has strength.” ‘As China Pushes for a “Buddhist” Globalisation, India Isn’t Making the Most of Its Legacy’, May 11, 2017, https://thewire.in/133670/india-china-buddhist/

[8] Zhang Yijiong’s outlandish claim was also countered in the Chinese state media just days afterwards, when a Chinese researcher, Hu Zhiyong, stated that: “It is true that Buddhism originated from India, but the religion thrived in China after it was localized to make it better adapt to the Chinese society.” Global Times, ‘”India culture controls China” remarks a trick to boost national pride: experts’, by Zhao Yusha, October 25, 2017.

[9] The full statement by Zhang Yijiong at the press conference on October 21 (2017) can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeYXMZlUalA

[10] International Campaign for Tibet, ‘China’s revised religious regulations threaten the survival of Tibetan Buddhism’, September 18, 2017, https://www.savetibet.org/chinas-revised-religious-regulations-threaten-survival-of-tibetan-buddhism/

[11] In 2010, Zhang also served as Secretary of the Politics and Law Commission of the TAR.

[12] A teaching manual of the United Front Work Department obtained by the Financial Times exhorts cadres to be gracious and inclusive as they try to “unite all forces that can be united” around the world. But it also instructs them to be ruthless by building an “iron Great Wall” against “enemy forces abroad” who are intent on splitting China’s territory or hobbling its development. “Enemy forces abroad do not want to see China rise and many of them see our country as a potential threat and rival, so they use a thousand ploys and a hundred strategies to frustrate and repress us,” according to the book, titled the “China United Front Course Book”. “The United Front . . . is a big magic weapon which can rid us of 10,000 problems in order to seize victory,” adds another passage in the book, which identifies its authors and editorial board as top-level United Front officials. Financial Times, ‘Inside China’s secret “magic weapon” for worldwide influence’, October 26, 2017 by James Kynge, Lucy Hornby and Jamil Anderlini in Hong Kong, https://www.ft.com/content/fb2b3934-b004-11e7-beba-5521c713abf4

[13] The Chinese state media describes a visit to the TAR to discuss security and counter-terror work on July 10, 2014, accompanied by Wu Yingjie, now Party Secretary, and Deng Xiaogang, the former executive vice chairman of Tibet Autonomous Region and Secretary of Politics and Law Commission. During the visit Zhang Yijiong also met Gyaltsen Norbu, installed by the Chinese authorities as the 11th Panchen Lama. Zhang Yijiong also met troops from the People’s Liberation Army stationed in the border areas of Ngari (Chinese: Ali) in the TAR, and visited checkpoints and Buddhist monasteries in the border area. He talked about the need for Buddhist monks and nuns to “resolutely fight against the 14th Dalai Clique’s separatist activities in Tibet and safeguard the reunification of motherland.” Tibet Daily, July 10, 2014, http://cpc.people.com.cn/n/2014/0710/c83084-25263321.html

[14] Gabriel Lafitte has written a series of blogs on minerals including lithium in Tibet on his blog www.rukor.org Also see Lafitte’s article for China Dialogue, ‘Tibet’s resource curse’, December 19, 2011, https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/4696-Tibet-s-resource-curse

[15] In his visit to Qinghai on August 22-24, 2016, Xi Jinping underlined the focus of the leadership on urbanization and resource extraction in Tibet, indicating the significance of what the Chinese media calls the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (QTP) to Beijing’s long-term objectives. Nearly all of China’s lithium comes from Tibet, from two areas – the salt beds of the Tsaidam Basin, where Xi visited, and the rock deposits of Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Kham (the Tibetan area of Sichuan). See International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘Xi Jinping visit to Qinghai reveals strategic importance of Tibet’s water, minerals; highlights CCP’s advanced plans’, September 6, 2016, https://www.savetibet.org/xi-jinping-visit-to-qinghai-reveals-strategic-importance-of-tibets-water-minerals-highlights-ccps-advanced-plans/

[16] The composition of the new Politburo Standing Committee shows that while Xi Jinping has followed the Party’s informal rules and convention regarding retirement age of senior cadres, he has avoided introducing younger cadres who could be potential successors in the PBSC.

[17] Analyst Jayadeva Ranade’s new book, ‘Cadres of Tibet’, includes an appendix detailing Chinese leaders who are influential on Tibet policy on p 172. KW Publishers, Delhi, 2017. Also see the chapter ‘China’s Focus on Military Activities in Tibet’, p 150, in ‘Xi Jinping’s China’ by Jayadeva Ranade, KW Publishers, Delhi, 2017.

[18] This reference is from a meeting of the Shaanxi Provincial Party Committee on the occasion of Zhao Liji’s transfer from Qinghai to Party Secretary of Shaanxi in 2007. People’s Daily in Chinese, March 25, 2007, http://politics.people.com.cn/GB/14562/5520440.html

[19] International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘Tibet Party boss speaks of establishing “red lines” in the anti-Dalai Lama struggle as Nancy Pelosi visits Lhasa’, November 13, 2015, https://www.savetibet.org/tibet-party-boss-speaks-of-establishing-red-lines-in-the-anti-dalai-lama-struggle-as-nancy-pelosi-visits-lhasa/

[20] Party Secretary Zhang Qingli zealously reinstated mechanisms of social and political control that owe their roots — both historically and ideologically — to the political extremism of the Mao era. Zhang’s ideological position followed in the tradition of previous hardliners in the TAR, TAR Party Secretary Chen Kuiyan (1992 to 2000), i.e., the Party is engaged in a “life and death struggle” with the Dalai Lama, and provided justification for the implementation of intense “patriotic education” in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, nunneries and the wider Tibetan society. Among the grievances of monks whose March 10 street protest in Lhasa began the Tibet-wide protests in 2008 was the impact of this ideological campaign and its stifling of religious practice. Zhang’s frequent and hostile rhetoric against the Dalai Lama, who he described as “the biggest obstacle hindering Tibetan Buddhism from establishing normal order,” and “a wolf in monk’s clothes, a devil with a human face,” caused deep anguish to the majority of Tibetans, as did his claims that “The Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans.” In his book ‘Cadres of Tibet’ (KW Publishing, Delhi), Jayadeva Ranade writes that in China Zhang Qingli is referred to as the “Iron Party Secretary”, meaning ‘iron wrist’ rather than ‘iron fist’, which suggests “a decisive decision-maker who is clever, tough and stubborn, not someone who can govern only by brute force.”

[21] See ICT blog by Bhuchung K Tsering, ‘China’s 19th Party Congress and Tibetans’, https://weblog.savetibet.org/2017/10/chinas-19th-party-congress-and-tibetans/

[22] This description is taken from the book ‘Cadres in Tibet’ by Jayadeva Ranade, KW Publishers, India, 2017.

[23] Hu Chunhua had been seen as a potential successor when, together with the now disgraced Chongqing party boss Sun Zhengcai, also 54, he was promoted to the Politburo in 2012, at the same time that Mr Xi assumed power as general secretary of the CCP. Hu had declined a job in Beijing in the 1980s, in order to go to Tibet where he served until 2006-7, later becoming Deputy Party Secretary in the TAR and then Party Secretary of Inner Mongolia. Willy Wo Lap Lam, expert on the Chinese leadership, observed: “His career has peaked.” He could be made one of the vice-premiers next March or be given a party job that is respectable but does not carry much power, Dr Lam added. The speed with which Mr Hu was removed from the Guangdong post showed “Xi’s aggressiveness”, Dr Lam said. “He doesn’t waste time.” (Straits Times, ‘Xi protege Li Xi named Guangdong party boss, replaces Hu Chunhua’, October 28, 2017, http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/li-xi-appointed-guangdong-party-chief-replacing-hu-chunhua).

[24] Announced in the Chinese state media, Tibet Daily, on October 30, 2017, http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-10/30/content_797415.htm

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