The Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrated its centenary year on 1 July 2021. After the celebration, Xi Jinping made his first inspection tour to Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) from 21-23 July 2021as the President. It was also the first visit by the Chinese President in three decades, after Jiang Zemin’s visit in 1990. The visit was kept a secret until he landed in TAR and photographs began to come out on social media.
Significance of the Visit
Tibet is related to the “core interest” of China along with Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea. It is also important for the success of the One Belt and One Road (OBOR) of China.
Xi Jinping visited the region to mark the 70th anniversary of the Seventeen Point Agreement[i] that the Chinese call “peaceful liberation of Tibet”. (The Seventeen Point Agreement was signed on May 23, 1951.) This was Xi Jinping’s third visit to Tibet; earlier he visited in 2008 as Fujian Province Party Chief and in 2011(as Vice President). In 2011, he visited to mark the 60th anniversary of the agreement.[ii] Chinese media and propaganda machinery did not miss a chance to highlight Xi’s association with Tibet. The People’s Daily termed the visit as an inspection tour and underscored that the importance of the CPC for governing Tibet in a “new era” and write a new chapter in long-term stability and high-quality development for the region.[iii]After the visit the China Daily published an infographic titled “Timeline: President Xi’s focus on Tibet”.[iv]
Notably, every year in July, a member of the CPC politburo visits Tibet, on an inspection tour. The visit is planned to get a sense of the ground reality in Tibet and prepare a report for the upcoming Beidaihe meeting about the region. In the past few years, Wang Yang member of the politburo and in charge of the minorities inspected the region before the meeting. This year Xi Jinping decided to visit the region before the Beidaihe meeting.[v]
China has put new restrictions on the Tibetan religion, education and language.[vi] Therefore, the Chinese leaders feared any mishap during the visit and maintained secrecy. The way the trip was organized shows that Tibet continues to be a sensitive issue and the Chinese authorities are doubtful about their acceptability among the Tibetan people.
The composition of Xi Jinping’s delegation is also noteworthy. The delegation consisted of Ding Xuexiang, Liu He, Yang Xiadu, Gen Zhang Youxia, Chen Xi, and He Lifeng. Each politburo member signifies the thrust of China towards TAR. Ding Xuexing mostly accompanies Xi Jinping in his inspection tours. Liu He is a member of the Politburo, Vice Premier and Director of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission. He is in charge of the US-China trade friction. Yang Xiaodu is the Director of the National Supervisory Commission and a member of the politburo. He Lifeng is in charge of the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC) and the implementation of OBOR. Gen Zhang Youxia was appointed as the head of the Western Theatre Command earlier this year. He is the Vice-Chairman, Central Military Commission and a member of the politburo. He was instrumental in arranging a meeting between Xi and the members of the Tibet Military District (TMD). Each member of his entourage brought specific expertise that will assist him to tighten the grip on the region and fasten the infrastructure development in the region.[vii]
Strategic Implications of the Visit
The itinerary of the visit was judiciously selected and the places he visited were carefully chosen. Xi Jinping landed in Nyingchi Mainling Airport and visited Nyang River Bridge. He drove to Nyang River to inspect the Yarlung Zangbo /Brahmaputra River. He visited the local areas such as the local city planning hall, a village and a park in Nyingchi, city and rural park.[viii]
The visit was focused on developing connectivity to border areas. From Nyingchi he travelled on the bullet train to Lhasa. The Lhasa Nyingchi rail infrastructure project was completed recently in Tibet’s southern and southeastern counties near the Arunachal Pradesh border. In case of crisis, “the railway can act as a ‘fast track’ for the delivery of strategic materials.”[ix]At Lhasa, he visited Drepung Monastery, Bakhor Street, and Potala Palace. He heard the reports of the Party committee and government of TAR on their work. He also met the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops stationed in Tibet and emphasised “military training and preparedness in all aspects”.[x]
Strategically, the visit comes against the background of the heightened US-China trade friction and the international scrutiny against China on the human rights violation in Xinjiang. Recently, the US has passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. Hence it was a kind of signalling to the US that China will not accept interference from any other country in the region.
Amid the ongoing India-China tensions, the region is of prime importance in bilateral relations. The starting point of Xi’s visit, Nyinchi is just 15 km away from India and has a dual-use airport. His visit to the Yarlung Tsangpo River is alarming for India if China builds a hydropower project on the river. The meeting with PLA soldiers also signals that China might be focusing on the border with India. Notably, in January 2021, China had established a new village in the border area of Arunachal Pradesh and had made major changes in the Western Theatre Command.
As Xi Jinping prepares for the 20thNational Party Congress, the visit was intended to showcase and reinstate his control over Tibet and give an impetus to the ongoing work in the region.
*Dr. Teshu Singh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] The 17 –point Agreement-What China promised, what it really delivered and the future?, Central Tibetan Administration, 23 May 2019, https://tibet.net/the-17-point-agreement-what-china-promised-what-it-really-delivered-and-the-future-2/, (accessed on 28 July 2021)
[ii] Sammy Westfall, Xi Jinping First Chinese President to visit Tibet in 30 years, The
Washington Post, 23 July 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/07/23/xi-visits-tibet/, (accessed on 28 July 2021)
[iii] Xi inspects Tibet, stressing lasting stability, high-quality development, People’s Daily, 24 July 2021, http://en.people.cn/n3/2021/0724/c90000-9876179.html,(accessed on 28 July 2021)
[iv]Timeline: President Xi's focus on Tibet, China Daily, 28 July 2021, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202107/28/WS6100a72aa310efa1bd664d5b.html, (accessed on 28 July 2021)
[v] Claude Arpi, Why did Xi Jinping meet the PLA generals?, 26 July 2021,
https://www.rediff.com/news/column/claude-arpi-why-did-xi-meet-pla-generals/20210726.htm, (accessed on 28 July 2021)
[vi]Liza Lin, Eva Xiao and Jonathan Cheng, China targets another region in ethnic assimilation campaign: Tibet, Wall Street Journal,16 July 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-ethnic-assimilation-campaign-tibet-xinjiang-11626450702, (accessed on 28 July 2021)
[vii]Claude Arpi, Xi Jinping’s Tibet tour is Chinese propaganda but India must take note, 27 July 2021, The Quint, https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/xi-jinpings-tibet-tour-is-chinese-propaganda-but-india-must-take-note#read-more,(accessed on 29 July 2021)
[viii]Xi inspects Tibet, stressing lasting stability, high quality development, People’s Daily, 24 July 2021, http://en.people.cn/n3/2021/0724/c90000-9876179.html, (accessed on 28 July 2021)
[ix]Ananth Krishnan, Xi Jinping visits Tibet Border Region, First by Chinese leaders in years, The Hindu, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/xi-jinping-visits-tibet-border-region-first-by-chinese-leader-in-years/article35481755.ece , (accessed on 28 July 2021)
[x]Xi inspects Tibet, stressing lasting stability, high quality development, People’s Daily, 24 July 2021, http://en.people.cn/n3/2021/0724/c90000-9876179.html, (accessed on 28 July 2021)