29 November 2023

China's 'Xizang' move seeks to erase Tibet's historical footprint as Beijing's envoys push narrative across South Asia

Today, China continues to further colonised areas already under its control by changing the names of these places; this is particularly true for Tibet.

During his meeting with President Xi Jinping, US President Joe Biden raised concerns over China’s human rights abuses. President Biden particularly mentioned Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
A few hours later, during a dinner on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, President Xi answered by claiming that his country has “not provoked a conflict or war, or occupied a single inch of foreign land.” Xi added: “Throughout the 70 years and more since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has not provoked a conflict or war, or occupied a single inch of foreign land.”

What does it mean?
From the Chinese point of view, the annexation of Eastern Turkestan (now Xinjiang) at the end of 1949, the invasion of Tibet in the early 1950s or the occupation of the Aksai Chin of Ladakh is not a Chinese ‘occupation’ simply because Beijing views all these territories as belonging to the Middle Kingdom; ditto for the South-East Asian countries which have been facing similar issues in the South China Sea and even the conflict in Ladakh since May 2020 has not been provoked by China.

Regarding India’s northern border, it is worth noting that in 1960, when a group of officials of India and China met for extensive discussions on the boundary, in most areas (including in NEFA – today Arunachal Pradesh), Beijing had no proof to support their claims.

Today, China continues to further colonised areas already under its control by changing the names of these places; this is particularly true for Tibet. 

A white paper

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

As a colonial power, Communist China has repeatedly changed the names of the people, places, and even nations.

Tibet now is 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 the new name for occupied Tibet official.

Additionally, it highlights 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,” while praising Xi Jinping for the changes.

The white paper also provides figures without of course saying how Tibet became Chinese in the first place.

Suffice to mention the first article of the 17-Point Agreement which was forced upon the Tibetans in May 1951 (the Dalai Lama said that it was signed under duress by the Tibetan delegates), but which made official the Chinese invasion.

Article One says: “The Tibetan people shall unite and drive out invading imperialist forces from Tibet; the Tibetan people shall return to the big family of the motherland – the People’s Republic of China.” If the Tibetans needed to ‘return’ to the motherland, it meant that they were not part of it in 1950.

The white paper, concludes: “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, i.e. ‘Tibet Airlines’.

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government-in-exile 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 downplayed the region’s distinct political identity by using ‘Xizang or ‘Xizang Autonomous Region’.

Wang Junzheng’s visit to three nations

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

A communiqué of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Wang’s visit was to maintain the “good momentum of high-level exchanges between two countries.”

According to the Chinese media, while in Nepal, Wang Junzheng called on President Ram Chandra Poudel, Prime Minister Prachanda, Vice President Yadav, Rajya Sabha Chairman Ganesh Timalsina and Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Shrestha: “the two sides exchanged views on the all-out efforts to implement the important outcomes of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in 2019 …and to promote mutually beneficial cooperation between the Xizang Autonomous Region and Nepal.”

Wang Junzheng declared that “the Xizang Autonomous Region and Nepal are connected by mountains and rivers, have humanistic ties and have been friendly for generations, with a long history of exchanges and mingling. The Xizang Autonomous Region will give full play to its advantages in location, geography and humanities, deepen exchanges and cooperation with Nepal, and work together to build a three-dimensional trans-Himalayan connectivity network.”

The Tibet Party Secretary added: “It will also strengthen exchanges and cooperation with Nepalese universities, academic institutions and think tanks, promote the establishment of more friendship cities and friendship associations between the Xizang Autonomous Region and Nepal.”

Wang Junzheng also met with Oli, Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and others Communist leaders and spoke of developing “the operation of Himalayan Airways, a joint-venture company between Xizang Autonomous Region and Nepal.”

The ‘Xizang’ representatives also visited ‘joint’ projects in Pokhara, though the objective of the exercise was clearly to get acceptance for the name ‘Xizang’.

That is not all. A day later (on 14 November), Wang Junzheng was seen in Colombo with MUM 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.”

During his stay in Sri Lanka, Wang Junzheng spoke of promoting exchanges and cooperation between the Xizang Autonomous Region and Sri Lanka under the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as strengthening exchanges in the fields of culture, art and ecology.

The two sides should “continuously enhance mutual trust, deepen friendship, expand exchanges and cooperation in various aspects and fields”, said Wang.

Later Wang moved to Singapore where he met with Ma Shan Gao, the Minister of Social and Family Development and Liu Yanling the Minister of Trade and Industry and Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth.

His objective was the same; Tibet should be called ‘Xizang’.

Wang Junzheng stated that Singapore is “a world-famous garden city and a successful model of multicultural development. The Xizang Autonomous Region will learn from Singapore’s advanced experience, strengthen exchanges in the fields of science and technology, ecology, etc., and enhance the level of Tibet’s urban planning and the innovation ability of enterprises; expand cooperation in culture and tourism, etc.”

Most of India’s neighbours will now use ‘Xizang’ instead of Tibet.

Yan Jinhai in the Maldives

Wang was not the only one to propagate the new name for Tibet in the neighbourhood. The chairman of the Tibet (now Xizang) Autonomous Region (and No 2 in Tibet) Yan Jinhai has paid a visit to the Maldivves where he called on the new President Dr. Mohamed Muizzu.

Yan, a Tibetan despite his Chinese name, congratulated the new Maldivian leader “on his success during both rounds of this year’s presidential elections and assuming duties as the eighth president of Maldives and expressed gratitude for the warm hospitality.”

The discussions mainly revolved around starting direct flights between the Maldives and ‘Xizang’ Autonomous Region. “President Muizzu and Chairman Yan also explored ways to further expand tourism, and discussed cultural similarities and shared challenges, such as climate change,” said a Chinese communiqué.

Apparently, Yan briefed Muizzu on several aspects of the ‘Xizang’ Autonomous Region including its culture, geography and unique environment and offered (generously says the article) 1,500 tonnes of glacial bottled water sourced from the Xizang Autonomous Region.

The offer was graciously accepted by President Muizzu.

This new step in Tibet’s colonization is a serious issue for India.

Take an example, India’s north-eastern boundary was signed between Sir Henry McMahon, India’s foreign secretary and Lonchen Shatra, Tibet’s prime minister. ‘Xizang’ was nowhere in the agreement. By erasing Tibet’s name, China tries to bury forever Independent Tibet which existed for centuries.


Originally Published in Firstpost on 28 November 2023