Chinese president Xi Jinping had just concluded a three-day inspection tour to Qinghai province in the run up to the centenary of the founding anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on July 1. Among other dignitaries Xi was accompanied by Vice Premier Liu He, Qinghai Party Secretary Wang Jianjun and executive Deputy Party Secretary Xin Changxing who is also the Governor of Qinghai provincial government. Liu is an economist by profession and China’s trade envoy with Washington. He is also one of the trusted friends of Xi in the 25-member Politburo, second most powerful organ of the CCP. His presence with Xi in Qinghai may suggests something else. However, Xi’s visit to Qinghai was likely meant to glorify the Communist Party’s self-proclaimed success in eliminating extreme poverty and benevolence of the party ahead of its 100th founding anniversary.
Usually the state visit to “ethnic minority” areas were conducted by chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and officials from the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the two designated primary organs of the CCP for dealing with “ethnic minorities”, a political oriented term used in place of the term “nationality”, apparently to avoid getting a slightest connotation of a separate nation or nationality within China. The term nationality was used by China to translate the Chinese word minzu, but is now no longer permitted to use in official documents. For instance, the Central Minzu University was known as the Central University of Nationalities until the decision to change it in 2008. By this logic, Wang Yang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and head of the CPPCC, should be visiting Qinghai instead of Xi.
On the first day, Xi visited Shengyuan Carpet Group Co., Ltd in provincial capital Xining (ཟི་ལིང་) on the first day of his three-day inspection tour. The company is a carpet production company producing Tibetan carpets. The company is registered under the name of Xue Yuming, a Chinese national who had served in the People’s Liberation Army. Xi says that the Tibetan carpet industry helps people to get out of poverty and promotes ethnic unity. Indeed it helps Chinese people to come out of poverty. A reliable source points out that majority of the employees of the company are Chinese. Doesn’t this look like Tibetans and other nationalities are being sidelined or discriminated? If that is the case, this kind of discriminative treatment in no way strengthens ethnic unity, rather sow discord between Chinese and other nationalities, including Tibetans and Uyghurs, two most significant minority nationalities in terms of conflict potential. There are many other Tibetan production companies in the same city that produce authentic Tibetan religious and cultural artefacts. Then why did the local party honchos picked the Tibetan carpet industry run by a Chinese for Xi’s visit? The answer is best known to them.
On the second day, Xi visited Kangtsa County in Tsojang Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TTAP) in Qinghai province (མཚོ་སྔོན་ཞིང་ཆེན་མཚོ་བྱང་བོད་རིགས་རང་སྐྱོང་ཁུལ་རྐང་ཚ་རྫོང་). Kangtsa is one of the four counties in TTAP. There are five other Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures in Qinghai province with a total of 33 counties altogether. Surprisingly, not a single Tibetan official is seen accompanying Xi. This may suggests Xi was not willing to hear grievances from Tibetan party cadres, let alone from ordinary Tibetans. However, Xi met with a group of Tibetans and even visited a home of Tibetan nomadic family who were certainly part of the choreographed team. It has become a routine for every party-state leaders to visit Tibetan homes when they are in Tibetan areas. This kind of visit is meant to show that the Communist Party is ultimate savior of the people, not the Tibetan Buddhism. The same source suggests that the Tibetan nomadic family Xi met with was one of the relocated families in Kangtsa County. China claims the relocation policy of Tibetan nomads is to protect grasslands and helps in ecological conservation, but it is seen as a way to destroy Tibetan nomad culture by putting them in concentrated settlements and deprive of their traditional livelihood. This policy, on the other hand, underpins China’s surveillance and control of Tibetan people.
On the last day, Xi visited the Kokonor Lake known in Tibetan as Mtsho-sngon-po (མཚོ་སྔོན་པོ་), meaning blue lake. Xi’s visit to this magnificent blue lake served his dual purpose. On one hand, this will strengthen his image as a global leader who is not only interested in environmental protection at home but also work towards global environmental governance along with the other leading world leaders. On the other, this will attract Chinese tourist from inland China particularly when they look for domestic exotic travel destinations during the pandemic, thereby helping local economy to grow in this difficult time.
Besides that, Xi stressed on strengthening ethnic unity and guiding religion to adapt to a socialist society, meaning sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism, two guiding policies on China’s management of ethnic and religious works. To achieve ethnic unity as propagated by Xi, Chinese party official in Tibet promotes incentive-based intermarriage between Tibetans and Chinese. This can be best illustrated by the intermarriage family forum held in 2014 in Tibetan capital Lhasa. The forum was chaired by the then Party Secretary of the TAR Chen Quanguo who said “to promote fraternal ethnic intermarriage as an important starting point to promote the great unity of all ethnic groups in Tibet”. A similar policy is being implemented on Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This policy, as argued by prominent Beijing-based Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser, is to wipe out “ethnic identity, language, religion and culture”.
Sinicization of religion, on the other hand, is relatively a new concept, germinated out of China’s sheer academic response to a Christian problem in 2012. The concept gradually gains traction since 2015 when it was first put into use as an official discourse at the Central United Front Work Conference and at the Central Conference on Religious Work in 2016. The sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism was made clear by Zhang Yijiong, the executive deputy head of the central UFWD, during a press briefing on the sidelines of the 19th Party Congress in 2017. Zhang said Tibetan Buddhism was a special religion “born in our ancient China” and has “Chinese orientation”. This statement is seen as China’s urgency to legitimize its interference in Tibetan Buddhism and its assertion into centuries-old reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism.
In a nutshell, ethnic unity and sinicization of religion will remain the guiding policies on China’s management of ethnic and religious work in Xi’s new era.
*Mr. Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute. Tsering Samdup contributed to this article.