Xi’s new approach to Tibet will affect India
Xi’s comments on border security along with those about digging up historical facts will impact the boundary dispute
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent remarks at the seventh Central Symposium on Tibet Work indicate that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is doubling down on its hardline approach in the region, which evolved gradually after the 2008 protests.
The strategy for the next few years that Xi outlined entails a mix of persuasion, development, connectivity, indoctrination and coercion. This will not only have serious implications for ordinary Tibetans but will also impinge on the Sino-Indian boundary question, particularly in the context of China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh.
Before discussing Xi’s plan, it is worth mentioning that the seventh symposium was held following back-to-back visits by three high-level Chinese officials to Tibet. In July, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang travelled to the region, focusing on ethnic solidarity, separatism, and management of religious affairs.
A few weeks later, Vice Premier Hu Chunhua discussed poverty alleviation during a visit. It is important to note that as per local party officials, poverty alleviation work in Tibet has achieved “a decisive victory” with no counties or districts falling in the category of being poverty-stricken.
Finally, foreign minister and state councillor Wang Yi made a rare visit to Tibet in mid-August, focusing on security and border infrastructure. These visits would have undoubtedly provided feedback for the central leadership, and speak of the multifaceted approach that’s being adopted.
In his speech on the subject, Xi spoke about the need to “forge the consciousness” of the Chinese nation as a community and “enhance the quality of development” and “national security and long-term stability” in order to “build a new socialist modern Tibet.”
More importantly, he suggested that the CCP must adhere to strategic thinking to govern the borders and stabilise Tibet before governing.
This indicates enduring concern about local pushback against the party. Beijing still has serious concerns about stability in Tibet. These are likely to be heightened given the contestation that one can expect over the appointment of the next Dalai Lama.
Consequently, the strategy that Xi outlined comprises the following elements.
First, he highlighted the need to adhere to the direction of Sinicisation of religion. This implies a continuation of existing policy. For instance, starting from 2011, CCP cadres have been stationed in monasteries around the region. The objective is to ensure that religion does not challenge the bottom line of the legitimacy of party rule.
Second, Xi demanded that ideological education be stepped up, with the aim being to “plant the seeds of loving China in the depths of the hearts of every youth”.
Third, he stressed that the party must dig out, sort out and publicise “historical facts” that link Tibet to PRC.
Fourth, he spoke about border defence and the need to create an “impregnable fortress”. One should think of this not just from a physical border defence perspective, but also a broader sense of surveillance and information security.
Fifth, the party leadership in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai has been ordered to build physical and developmental linkages with Tibet.
And finally, Xi talked about economic development, ecological protection and addressing livelihood issues. In this, Xi appears to be invoking Hu Jintao’s argument that “functioning markets, water, electricity, heat: These are as much part of counter-insurgency as police work and brute force.”
Based on these, one can expect a continued and potentially intensified crackdown on communications and freedom of expression, speech and movement in Tibet. Starting from 2012, the CCP has developed, strengthened and securitised its grid policing and surveillance systems in Tibet.
The region already accounts for a large chunk of China’s domestic security expenditure. If threats escalate, it is
not inconceivable that Beijing could seek to replicate its model in Xinjiang, which CCP sees as a success, in Tibet to pre-empt instability.
From an Indian perspective, Xi’s comments on border security along with those about digging up historical facts
will impact the boundary dispute. The former will have an impact at a tactical level the latter implies that Beijing will engage in greater public opinion and legal warfare, leveraging selective history to strengthen its claims on Arunachal Pradesh.
In the long-term, this will likely undermine the possibility of arriving at any resolution to the boundary dispute based on the current status quo on the ground.