The week long 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) concluded on 14 November 2012, in Beijing with much anticipation of Xi Jinping’s elevation to the Party Secretary as well as unprecedented elevation to the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Unlike his predecessors, the new generation leadership under the helm of Xi Jinping has scores of challenges to confront. One among them is the prolonged issue of Tibet.
In line with China’s economic slowdown, embezzlement, rising income inequality and pollution, the leaders must heed the grim and tense situation in Tibet. The leaders must redress the grievances of the Tibetan people and review China’s Tibet policy which has proved a disaster that has been reflected through the number of self-immolations. The toll has reached 122 since February 2009 and 109 deaths reported so far. Particularly on the eve of the 18th party congress, 5 Tibetans from different areas of Tibet set themselves on fire that mounted a big pressure on the new leadership. This is a clear indication that Tibetans inside Tibet are deprived of basic human rights and discontented with the regime.
The new line-up of the fifth-generation leadership consists of supreme seven-member Politburo which is officially known as the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) for which Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang served one term under Hu’s administration (2007-2012) as the Vice President and Vice Premier respectively. Both Xi and Li will reign for the next ten years and the other five members are supposed to retire during the 19th Party Congress on the basis of mandatory retirement age of 68.1 Therefore, many Sinologists predict Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai, both at their prime age of 49, among sixth-generation leaders as the strongest contenders in the next Party Congress to be convened in 2017.
From the top seven, five belong to the Shanghai faction (elitist) supervised by 87 years old Jiang Zemin. The duo Li Keqiang and Liu Yunshan belong to the Chinese Communist Youth League (Populist) once overseen by Hu Jintao. Currently, 47 years old Qin Yizhi is the Secretary of the Youth League.
Leaders in the Politburo who matter in Tibetan affairs
In the current PBSC, there has been no single leader who served in Tibet in their past political career. But there are not many veterans who are associated with Tibet currently sitting in the broader Politburo, which consists of 25 members.
Hu Chunhua, who speaks conversational Tibetan, is on top of the list. Notably he spent more than two decades in Tibet. Right after his graduation from Peking University in 1983, he started his political career in Tibet as a clerk and ambitiously climbed to the high post of Deputy Party Secretary and Executive vice Governor of Tibet (2003-2006). The quick transition helped him in developing his political experiences from grassroots up to administration level. He established his patron-mentor relationship with Hu Jintao when the senior Hu served as the Party Secretary in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) from1988 to1992. Hu Chunhua built his political career in Tibet largely through the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL).
On the count of seniority, 67 years old Liu Yangdong (eldest member of the Politburo) appear to be the one who will have a say in Tibetan affairs. She has been equipped with firsthand information and experiences on the Sino-Tibetan Dialogue. Six rounds of dialogue held under her supervision from 2002 to 2007, when she was in charge of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the CCP. She is currently holding a post of Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China. There has been a speculation before the 18th Party Congress that Liu along with Liu Yunchao and Wang Yang would be the most deserving candidates in the PBSC. Unfortunately none of them made their way to the top.
Another significant political personality who had worked in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) for more than a decade including the highest post – Party Secretary from 2000-2004. He is none other than Guo Jinlong, aged 65, who was appointed Beijing Party Secretary last year. He has long been considered as a protégé of Hu Jintao.
Zhao Leji, the current head of the Central Organization Department, an extremely powerful and secretive body in the CCP, had a 30 plus years of work experience and served as the Party secretary from 2003 to 2007 in Qinghai province.
58 years old Wang Huning, a professor by profession holds a director post in the Policy Research Office of the CCP. He recently accompanied President Xi Jinping during his visit to Gansu, near Labrang monastery. He is a member of the Tibetan delegation to the last National People’s Congress (NPC).
Meng Jianzhu is the new security boss. He is currently the Secretary of the Central Political and Law Commission, a portfolio which was previously held by Zhou Yongkang from 2007 to 2012. Meng visited the Kirti Monastery in November 2011. He is the Vice Chairman of the Central Tibetan Work Coordination Group or the Leading Group on Tibetan affairs.
Liu Qibao was the Party Secretary of Sichuan province from 2008 to 2012. He is currently a member of the Secretariat and head of its Publicity Department. Most importantly, he is the Vice Chairman of the Central Tibetan Work Coordination Group or the Leading Group on Tibetan affairs.
United Front Work Department (UFWD)
The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is an agency under the command of the CCP. This agency looks after the non-Communist Party entities and oversees issues concerning national minorities. Therefore, it’s the key organization managing Tibetan affairs.
Ling Jihua, the current head of the Central UFWD, succeeding Du Qinglin. Ling is currently the Vice Chairman of the Central Tibetan Work Coordination Group or the Leading Group on Tibetan affairs. If the Chinese leadership resumes the Sino-Tibetan Dialogue, Ling and his team consisting of two Deputy Heads Zhang Yijiong and Sithar (Tibetan) are the ones who will meet the envoys of the Dalai Lama. Zhang Yijiong, the former Deputy Secretary of TAR from 2006 to 2010, replaced Zhu Weiqun in 2012. The former accompanied Yu Zhengsheng (Minority boss) during the recent six-day visit to Lhasa and Nagchu.
Despite rumor that Zhu Weiqun has certainly disappeared from the scene, interestingly, he has been recently spotted with Yu Zhengsheng during the latter’s visit to Sichuan. This appears that Zhu has still a say in Tibetan affairs and regarding China’s Tibet policy, he says “In the fundamental sense, ‘high-level autonomy’ means Tibet’s independence. It is separated into two steps. The first step is so-called autonomy. The second one is actual independence.”2 He still holds the post of Secretary General of the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture.
Zhu’s former boss Du Qinglin who oversaw the UFWD from 2007 to 2012 is currently the Vice Chairman of the 11th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). He secured a seat on the 18th Central Committee, despite being a year older than Zhu Wiequn, indicating that age may not have been a consideration.
Key players in the military
Wang Jianping holds a rank of Commander of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force in 2009 and is a member of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP. He is presently a member of the Central Tibetan Work Coordination Group or the Leading Group on Tibetan affairs.
Lieutenant General Yang Jinshan is a member of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP. In June 2013, Yang was transferred to Chengdu as the Deputy Commander of the Chengdu Military Region.
Major General Xu Yong known for his active participation in the rescue work during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake has replaced Lieutenant General Yang Jinshan as Commander of Tibet Military Area.
Besides the Politburo, two former Party Secretaries of the TAR, Zhang Qingli aged 62, known for his hard-line approach was promoted to Vice Chairman and Secretary General of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a united-front organ at the end of the 12th CPPCC plenary session and QinYizhi, aged 47, former Vice Chairman of TAR government, was named first secretary of the CCYL. Rumors say that Qin could succeed Li Keqiang in future. Both Hu Jintao and Li Keqiang have served as heads of the league.
At the ministry level, Yang Chuantang aged 58, former Party Secretary of TAR became Minister of the expanded Ministry of Transport at the 12th National People’s Congress. Moreover, the Minister of Civil affairs Li Liguo, who has been associated with the TAR since 1993, visited Tibet in June 2013 and Wang Zhengwei, Minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission / a three time member of the Central Committee of the CCP from 16th to 18th Party Congress, visited Lhasa and Nyingtri from 11 to 16August in 2013.
There could be many reasons behind these major promotions but what Willy Lam mentioned in his article Centralized Power Key to Realizing Xi’s “China Dream” was a realistic observation of these developments. “A key factor behind the fast-track promotion of these cadres seems to be that their Tibet experience has testified to their ability to implement Beijing’s directives under extremely tough conditions.” Lam’s strong statement was backed by Claude Arpi’s latest article title China’s leadership change and its Tibet policy published online by Routledge. 3
As compared to the elder generation leaders, the Xi-Li administration has better academic qualification to run the world’s second largest economy and the most populous nation. The current Politburo has 5 PhDs and also features nine members with masters’ degrees. The change in the breadth of education is impressive. The world has witnessed a huge evolution where a generation of revolutionary soldiers gives way to technocratic engineers to fulfill the aspiration of the party. They have transformed the old Chinese civilization into the world’s second-largest economy overtaking Japan in 2011.
Tibetan representation at the 18th Party Congress
Among the solid strength of 82.6 million CCP members, 2270 delegates, representing 38,000 Party members were selected to the 18th Party Congress. As for the 55 national minorities in the PRC, only 249 representatives were selected from only 43 national minorities. Contrary, the combined strength of 300 PLA and PAP representative is higher than the number of representatives from 43 national minorities which clearly shows the two former military bodies are considered more important than ethnic minorities.
From that 2700 delegates selected for the national congress, the number of Tibetan delegates was nominal. Merely 30 representatives were included and 17 had represented TAR and remaining 13 represented Tibetan areas incorporated into various Chinese provinces such as Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu. 4
The ethnic minority’s single representative included in the Secretariat of the Central Committee is Yang Jing, a Mongolian. There are 39 ethnic minorities represented in the Central Committee level. As far as Tibetan representation in the Central Committee is concerned, the number has dropped from 2 to 1 in full-member category and at the same time a slight increased from 2 to 4 in alternative members as compared to the previous party congress under Hu Jintao. The single Tibetan who is represented in the Central Committee is Pema Thinley, aged 62. He concurrently serves as the Deputy Secretary of TAR and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Regional People’s Congress.
Among Tibetans in the decision making capacity, Pema Thinley and Lobsang Gyaltsen will have an upper hand in Tibetan affairs in years to come. Gonpo Tashi who was born in 1962 is seen as a potential candidate in the next reshuffle of the Tibetan leadership in the Chinese establishment.
The current head of TAR, Chen Quanguo and Hao Peng, former Deputy Secretary of TAR who has been recently transferred to the Governor of Qinghai Province are the two key Chinese officials in Tibet.
The number of women representative has been reduced to 33 and only 2 were allotted in the second highest decision making body – Politburo. No single ethnic minority representative was bestowed a seat in the Politburo as well as its Standing Committee. This means that the Tibetan representation in the CCP’s hierarchy is restricted to the Central Committee.
Analysis: Reading between the lines
The recently concluded 26th session of the Task Force on Sino-Tibetan Negotiations of the Central Tibetan Administration have added six new members to its team. The team is made up of highly experienced people, including the former Kalon Tripa, Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche. The expansion of the Task Force negotiation team under Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s administration is one part of the story. This could be an achievement for Sikyong’s administration, which since his election has ushered in a new phase of political leadership.
The crucial part of the story is still not visible. Many believe that the negotiations which started in 2002 are the only hope for the Tibetan side to resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully. The state of present negotiations has sadly remained stagnant since 2010.
A lot has changed since 2010, the year of the last round of talks between the envoys and Chinese representatives. New leadership has emerged in both Dharamsala and Beijing. The question needs to be raised: Will Xi Jinping’s administration resumes the stalled negotiations between the two? If this happens, will it just be the same fruitless process?
So far there have been two different views that have emerged in China regarding the Sino-Tibetan dialogue since Xi Jinping took office in March last year. The two views are one put forward by Xi’s foreman Yu Zhengsheng and another advanced by Professor Jin Wei from the Central Party School.
Yu Zhensheng’s rhetoric in statements during his visits to Tibetan areas incorporated into Chinese provinces and TAR indicate that the new Chinese leadership is not interested or may be not willing to discuss the issue of Tibet on the face of the present proposal. Perhaps they were not happy with His Holiness the Dalai Lama devolution of political authority to the elected leadership that marks a historic moment in Tibet’s history. Notably, Yu’s statement; “The Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which is intended to achieve high-degree autonomy in “Greater Tibet,” directly conflicts with China’s Constitution and the country’s system of regional ethnic autonomy” 5 clearly shows the CCP is unyielding, considering itself to be still above the rule of law.
From another perspective, I think the new Chinese leadership may actually want to bring the issue of Tibet onto the negotiation table – but with a new proposal. This idea is gleaned from Prof. Jin Wei’s interview published in Asia Weekly, a Chinese magazine in Hong Kong on June 6, 2013 under the title “Resume negotiations to resolve the Tibet issue” 6
Why should Jin Wei’s suggestions and recommendations be considered as important, and a matter of debate? The Central Party School where she works as Deputy Director of Minority Issues and previously the Director of Ethnic Religious Studies, Institute of Social Development Research are under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party, and Liu Yunshan (one of the top seven leaders in China) is the president of this school.
Generally, issues related to Tibet are treated and handled in a meticulous manner. It is unlikely to see academics in China, particularly those associated with the Party expressing their views on such politically sensitive issues freely. Prof. Wei is not an exception, although she may have expressed her personal views.
The core issues that she emphasized in her interview was the importance of the Dalai Lama for the six million Tibetans and how China deals with him directly affects the feelings of thousands and thousands of Tibetans. She said China should not treat religious and nationality issues as political ones. She also pointed out that China’s policies on Tibet are not working and recommended that dialogue impasse should be broken by bringing some practical measures like allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Hong Kong or Macau purely in his capacity as a religious leader.
Looking closely at both sides of the coin, it appears to me that Beijing is waiting for a new proposal from Dharamsala.
Acknowledgement: In the process of writing this article, I came across Claude Arpi’s “The Chinese who matter in Tibetan Affairs”, 7 which provided me comprehensive information on the Chinese leaders who will assist Xi Jinping and Yu Zhengsheng on Tibet issues in the years to come. I would also like to pay my gratitude to Bhuchung K. Tsering from International Campaign for Tibet for his numerous articles on Tibetan leadership in the Chinese establishment.
Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.