4 August 2023

Wang Huning’s Visit to Tibet Autonomous Region

Wang Huning, the chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), inspected the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) from 25 July to 27 July 2023. Shi Taifeng, the head of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), also travelled with him. The fact that they travelled together is significant in itself. The most plausible reason is that, since both handle similar portfolios, they came to take stock of UFWD tasks at the provincial level. It is important here that the media mentioned their meeting with Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai, the head of TAR Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the honorary chief of the Buddhist Association of China. He is also the 11th Qamdo Pagbalha Hutuktu and is touted in the media as having a say in the Dalai Lama reincarnation issue. Wang and Shi also met provincial-level CPPCC and UFWD cadres in Lhasa. UFWD cadres are at the forefront of convincing the local populace into accepting the Party-state’s policies in the province.

While Wang’s remarks published in media repeat signature policies, phrases, and terminology, there are three things that stand out in this tour in terms of objectives and outcomes, namely, taking stock of local UFWD activities and major policies; emphasis on ethnic unity education; and economic development, particularly developing industries suitable to local conditions in border areas. In this respect, their trip to Nyingchi is important. 

Ethnic education is an important pillar of China’s Tibet policy, and it has been reemphasized in the 7th Tibet Conference of 2020 and thereafter. However, recently, it has become an issue because new residential schools are being established to accommodate students of nomads who are being relocated to Nyingchi, Lhokha, and eastern counties of Lhasa primarily from Nagqu. These relocations have raised questions among ‘former’ nomads. It is possible that media reports, particularly among the Tibetan exile community, about “colonial residential schools” refer to such schools. In recent months, a couple of foreign “female journalists” visiting such a school featured in media reports as part of a counter to such accusations. Therefore, the Wang-Shi visit is important in terms of these officials inspecting policy implementation as well as progress and challenges. 

Nyingchi and Lhokha (Ch. Shannan) are getting attention in terms of urbanization, agriculture, tourism, and mining in recent years. The administrative changes are being undertaken at prefecture level first – prefectures were upgraded to prefecture-level cities – with counties being upgraded to county-level cities, next. Examples of the latter include Mainling in Nyigchi and Tsona in Lhokha. Wang Huning’s remarks emphasize developing industries suitable to local conditions and this refers to the efforts being made to develop mining, tourism, commercial agriculture, and animal husbandry as key industries to generate local revenue. 

This is part of broader efforts to develop the border area economy; TAR officials’ keenness in recent years on opening Tibet’s borders with South Asian counties is also driven by the desire to make the border region economy self-sustaining and less dependent on subsidies from the central government as well as more attractive for people to continue staying in these regions. Chinese efforts to open trade with Bhutan is a case in point as well as an attempt to revive ethnic ties with some communities like Monpa and Dengba with other Mishmi groups. Wang’s remarks in Mainling in Nyingchi thus reflect that this was a trip to get a sense of how these policies are panning out on the ground. Interestingly, he visited Gala village in Bayi District of Nyingchi which Xi also visited in 2021 and, the Peach Blossom festival, which has been held since 2014 as an example of a successful tourist project.

Inspecting activities of local UFWD activities and policy implementation are normal activities for senior officials when they visit TAR. However, it becomes more significant when we consider the kind of activities being undertaken by UFWD. 

One, local UFWD units are conducting a range of cultural events focusing on border counties. This is aimed at enhancing “national consciousness” among border populations. In this respect, focus on numerically smaller groups in recent years is important. The Dengba (in Zayul county), Monpa, and others have featured in media reports and activities of local UFWD organs. Reports hailing individuals and border patrol police in media and official narratives should be viewed accordingly. 

Two, UFWD units at provincial and local levels are conducting a campaign focusing on monks, nuns, and monasteries. In this respect, the Panchen Lama’s choreographed tours, the “three consciousness campaign” since June 2022, and the establishing and strengthening of monastery management committees are significant steps undertaken by UFWD to control religious institutions in preparation for the post-Dalai Lama scenario. There is no clear source for how many monastery management committees have been established though it is possible to determine their nature and functioning. They basically work as a party committee, similar to Party committees in other organs and companies, and are headed by a director, who is usually a Party member. It is also observed that many directors in big monasteries in non-TAR are Han as well as party members, when this author analyzed annual financial reports published by a few monasteries and the composition of such committees. Such committees also determine major activities by leading monks such as Kalachakra lectures and philanthropic activities. 

Wang’s visit to key locations in Lhasa also indicates that the trip was about taking stock of policies and projects already underway. For example, when he visited the Jokhang temple, Barkhor Street, and the Potala Palace, a media report particularly mentions that he came “to investigate the development of ethnic, religious, and social governance”. Most likely, this includes matters like digital surveillance, patrolling, police booths, and checking of IDs of outside travelers to such places as well as Lhasa city. In the event of any trouble, such places are key to maintaining stability. Since Lhasa receives pilgrims from other Tibetan areas and has a larger number of monks, and tourists, it is also more vulnerable to protests like those of 2008. 

Wang was also seen accepting the traditional Tibetan welcome ritual, ཕེབས་སོ་ཞུ་བ། phebs so shu ba, reflecting how party officials are treading the fine lines of religious life in Tibet. Wang has been a staunch advocate of Chinese traditional culture and is the key intellectual behind promoting narratives and slogans to blend tradition with Maoist socialist rhetoric in the Party’s official ideology and activities, including Xi Jinping’s drive to Sinicise Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, the fact that the Party is heeding to nuances of religious life and their importance including the reincarnation issue and associated rituals, suggests that Wang, rather than Xi himself, has advocated these nuanced policies. Wang’s position as the head of CPPCC thus makes sense. As a result, while the Party emphasizes Sinicization, it portrays itself as a champion of Tibetan culture, if it is a part of larger Chinese culture and history. This nuanced approach to religion and reincarnation as part of culture rather than an issue of cultural sovereignty, is aimed at presenting the Dalai Lama as a separatist and thus, delegitimizing the claims of the exiles.


About the Author: Devendra Kumar is an Associate Fellow, at the Centre of Excellence for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi National Capital Region.