28 November 2023

As Tibet becomes Xizang, Delhi faces a new concern

The long-awaited meeting between the two most powerful leaders of the planet finally took place at a farmhouse on the outskirts of San Francisco on November 15. During his press conference, US President Joe Biden said that Chinese President Xi Jinping was effectively a "dictator", which seemingly undid whatever good could have come out of the meeting.

When asked whether he still held the view (mentioned in June) that Mr Xi was a dictator, Mr Biden answered: "Look, he is. He’s a dictator in the sense that he’s a guy who runs a country that is a Communist country that’s based on a form of government totally different than ours."

Listening to his boss, US secretary of state Antony Blinken made a telling face: "He has done it again."

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, was not long to respond: "This statement is extremely wrong and irresponsible political manipulation," he told reporters on Thursday at a routine briefing. But Mr Xi’s speech at the welcome dinner remained uncontroversial: he mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative as well as the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI) and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) and proposed that China was "opened to all countries at all times, including the United States. China is also ready to participate in US-proposed multilateral cooperation initiatives."

He remembered his first visit to the United States: "I stayed at the Dvorchaks in Iowa. I still remember their address -- 2911 Bonnie Drive. The days I spent with them are unforgettable. For me, they represent America… Our two peoples are both kind, friendly, hardworking and down to earth."

These are different ways of dealing with seemingly insurmountable differences.

But remember Mahabalipuram? Everyone had praised the Modi-Xi encounter in 2019, and seven months later the People’s Liberation Army entered eastern Ladakh.

Though the California encounter may also end with a new confrontation (in Taiwan or the South China Sea?), one should not forget the hard realities of today’s life in China, particularly in what Beijing calls the "minorities areas", meaning Tibet and Xinjiang.

On November 10, Xinhua reported that the State Council Information Office had just released a white paper on the governance of the Xizang Autonomous Region.

But what is Xizang?

As a true colonial power, Communist China often changes the names of the people, places and even nations. It is the case of Tibet, which is now called "Xizang".

The main objective of the white paper titled "CPC Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements", is to make official the new name for the occupied territory of Tibet. It goes to highlight the CPC’s guidelines for governing Tibet, showing that Beijing has brought about "all-round progress and historic success in various undertakings in the region".

Of course, it praises Emperor Xi: "Since the 18th CPC National Congress held in 2012, Xizang [Tibet] has experienced a period of unprecedented development and huge change, bringing more tangible benefits to the people."

It also gives figures: "Xizang’s gross domestic product reached 213.26 billion yuan (about $29.3 billion) in 2022, representing an average annual growth rate of 8.6 per cent since 2012. The length of the region’s railway network had almost doubled during this period and 5G network has covered all counties and main townships there. The region had also eradicated absolute poverty."

Before concluding that "together with the rest of the country, people in Xizang have witnessed the tremendous transformation of the Chinese nation from standing up and becoming prosperous to growing in strength, and are now embarking on a new journey of building a modern socialist country in all respects".

The word "Tibet" is never used in the white paper, except as an adjective such as "Tibetan" or in the name of an organisation or institution, such as "Tibet Airlines".

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, strongly rejected the white paper, saying that the document was "unacceptable" and filled with "misinterpretation, misconceptions and lies".

It further pointed out that this 19th white paper on Tibet consistently downplaying the region’s distinct political identity by using "Xizang" or "Xizang Autonomous Region".

The CTA spokesperson, Tenzin Lekshay, called it "an insult to the Tibetan people. …The 32-page document talks about the aspirations of the people, but somehow the Tibetan people are missing, so we wonder what kind of aspirations they are talking about, whose aspirations they are talking about".

Also worrying for Delhi, China made official the term "Xizang" with India’s neighbours by sending visit Wang Junzheng, the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s party secretary, on a five-day visit to Kathmandu and then to Colombo. The "Tibet" delegation (without any Tibetans) was received at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu by Urmila Aryal, the National Assembly Vice-chairperson.

Mr Wang’s visit was to maintain the "good momentum of high-level exchanges between two countries", a communiqué of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs said.

During his stay, Mr Wang met with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal "Prachanda" Dahal: "Since we share a long border with Tibet, during the visit, our officials and the CPC delegation will discuss strengthening the bilateral ties along with implementing the agreements signed during the Prime Minister’s China visit," observed Rupak Sapkota, foreign affairs relations adviser to Mr Dahal.

The "Xizang" representatives also paid courtesy calls on vice-president Ramsahaya Prasad Yadav; later they met deputy prime minister and home minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha, minister for federal affairs and general administration Anita Devi Sah as well as Ganesh Prasad Timilsina, the chairman of the National Assembly.

He also visited "joint" projects in Pokhara, though it was clear that the objective of the exercise was to get acceptance for the name for "Xizang".

That is not all. A day later (on November 14), Wang Junzheng was seen in Colombo with Ali Sabry, the Sri Lankan foreign minister, who wrote on his X handle: "Pleased to meet with Wang Junzheng, secretary of the CPC of Xizang Autonomous Regional Committee in #China at the foreign ministry. Amongst other areas, we discussed potential bilateral cooperation @ChinaEmbSL [@MFA_SriLanka."

This means that more nations are now using "Xizang" instead of Tibet.

The moral of the story: Despite Mr Xi’s sweet words about building a community "with a shared future for mankind", ancient nations like Tibet have no place in Beijing’s schemes.

It does not augur well for humanity … or for India which has a long border with Tibet. After all, President Biden had been perhaps right about the Chinese "dictator".

Originally published in  Deccan Chronicle on 22 November 2023