-by International Campaign for Tibet
This year’s annual meetings of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—popularly called the “Two Sessions” (Chinese: Lianghui)—saw a markedly lower level of focus on Tibet than in recent years.
The “Two Sessions,” held from March 4 to 13, 2023, expectedly cemented Xi Jinping’s authority by extending his term as President of the People’s Republic of China.
Unlike in the past, this year there were no special press conferences by leaders of the Tibetan delegation, nor were any statements on Tibet made by Chinese leaders.
In the past, during the “Two Sessions” in 2021, Xi Jinping participated in the deliberations of the Qinghai delegation and even recalled his visit to Yushu after the earthquake of 2010. During the 2022 “Two Sessions,” the Chinese Communist Party-selected Panchen Lama was reported by Chinese state media outlet Xinhua on March 11, 2022 as telling Tibetans, “It is an unequivocal mission for us to unswervingly uphold the leadership of the CPC [Communist Party of China] without hesitation.”
However, as mandated, this year’s “Two Sessions” put into office a new set of leaders (both the NPC and CPPCC chairs have had connections to Tibetans) whose possible impact on Tibet policy is yet to be assessed.
Wang Huning and ‘Central Tibet Work Coordination Group’
The first new leader who would have a decisive role in Tibet policy is Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning, who is the new Chairman of China’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Successive chairs of the CPPCC have headed the Central Tibet Work Coordination Group (Chinese: Zhongyang Xizang Gongzuo Xietiao Xiaozu), which has become the main coordinating agency under the Chinese Communist Party. It can be assumed that Wang will be heading the Group.
Wang was a member of the Tibet Autonomous Region delegations to the 11th and 12th National People’s Congress (NPC), the Chinese Parliament, in 2008 and 2013, respectively. Wang also participated in the deliberations of the delegation of Qinghai during the 2018 NPC session, according to state media. Qinghai is a traditional Tibetan area, including being the birthplace of the present 14th Dalai Lama. As Wang was involved in some of the deliberations during this period, he would have some understanding of the Tibetan issue.
Wang had been in charge of ideology, the propaganda apparatus and Party organization, heading the secretive Central Policy Research Office. He has worked with China’s former top leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and now continues to be influential under Xi Jinping.
In November 2012, during the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, Wang participated in the discussions of the delegation from the Tibet Autonomous Region on then-leader Hu Jintao’s report. State media reported Wang as having praised Hu Jintao and “fully affirmed Tibet’s remarkable achievements in economic and social development.” Further, Wang is reported to have said, “The work in Tibet has important strategic significance in the overall work of the party and the country.”
Very little is known about the composition and activities of the “Central Tibet Work Coordination Group.” But the concept of such coordinating groups with specialized tasks has been there as part of the Chinese Communist governance system under the name of “Leading Small Groups” (lingdao xiaozu, 领导小组). China analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report in 2017 that this concept was expanded under Xi Jinping’s rule, although its origin can be traced back to the revolutionary period. They further said that Leading Small Groups “are coordinating bodies that address important policy areas that involve several different (and occasionally competing) parts of the bureaucracy” and that the Party continued to rely on these institutions as a key coordinator of policy. They added that the groups are much more involved in the policy process under Xi Jinping than ever before.
The United Front Work Department, the CCP’s organ tasked with outreach to non-Communists, is the “Central Tibet Work Coordinating Group’s” main implementation agency. As per tradition, its current head, Shi Taifeng, has also been appointed as a vice chair of the CPPCC. The United Front has been charged with outreach to the Tibetan people, both within Tibet and in exile through overt and covert activities, including through its staff who are posted as “diplomats” in some of the Chinese embassies and consulates in India, Nepal, Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe. Until 2005, when a separate seventh bureau was set up on Tibet affairs, the United Front’s second bureau dealing with religion and ethnic affairs oversaw Tibet. Since 2018, the United Front’s role has been strengthened by putting the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, a government office that also has a role on Tibet, under it.
Interestingly, the “Central Tibet Work Coordination Group” appears to have multiple research groups under it. At least two such research working groups, one on foreign affairs and the other on economic and social development, have been conducting fact-finding trips and organizing events on Tibet. The Group has also been tasked with organizing the Tibet Work Forums, seven of which have been held since 1980, the most recent one being in August 2020. In fact, Wang attended the seventh forum, during which Xi Jinping outlined his policy on the assimilation of Tibet, including saying, “It is necessary to actively guide Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to the socialist society and promote the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.”
Former United Front Vice Minister Sithar (Si Ta), who is Tibetan, has been identified by Chinese state media as the deputy head of the “Central Tibet Work Coordinating Group.” Sithar has been with the United Front for many years, including serving in Chinese embassies and consulates in India and Switzerland as part of the strategy to win over Tibetans in the diaspora. Sithar had also been part of the Chinese official team that conducted the dialogue process with envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the 2002-2010 period. He retired from the United Front in 2016.
As on Tibet, a similar “Central Xinjiang Work Coordination Group” has also been set up.
Former Qinghai Secretary is NPC Chair
Politburo Standing Committee member Zhao Leji is the new Chairman of the National People’s Congress, likely to have a say on Tibet policy. He is the only member in the Politburo with many years of experience working with Tibetans. He was born in the traditional Tibetan area known now as Qinghai province and began his career there in 1974. He has spent most of his working life there, moving up the leadership ladder until his transfer in 2007 as Secretary of Shaanxi Provincial Party Committee.
Zhao’s record on Tibet to date does not look promising. As Qinghai’s Party Secretary, Zhao was prominent in efforts to “combat foreign hostile forces, in particular, the 14th Dalai Clique’s infiltration and sabotage activities in Qinghai Province,” according to the Chinese state media.
Zhao also headed the Central Organization Department and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, thus becoming the main person behind Xi Jinping’s ‘anti-corruption’ campaign. In Tibet, the campaign had also been used in attempts to extinguish loyalty to the Dalai Lama, with Party officials “who have fantasies about the 14th Dalai Clique” being warned of punishment.
During the “Two Sessions” in 2018, Zhao attended the deliberations of the delegation from the Tibet Autonomous Region at the 13th NPC session. Chinese state media reported on his attendance, saying, “Secretary Zhao Leji listened and took notes, and had in-depth exchanges with everyone on relevant issues from time to time.”
Further, “Zhao Leji fully affirmed the development and stability of Tibet and the various tasks of party building. He emphasized that the party’s style of work is related to the support of the people and the life and death of the party.” A Chinese state media report in Tibetan then said that Zhao specifically called for the implementation of an eight-point regulation adopted by the Communist Party of China Central Committee, on improving work style in eight aspects, focusing on rejecting extravagance and reducing bureaucratic visits and meetings.
Zhao also attended the Seventh Central Tibet Work Forum in 2020.
Interestingly, Zhao’s father Zhao Ximin also worked in Qinghai and is said to have had a personal relationship with Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun. Zhao senior, who died in 1999, was deputy head of Tsoshar (Haixi) Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and had also served as deputy editor of Qinghai Daily.
Xi Jinping prioritizes security
In his speech to the NPC on March 13, 2023, President Xi Jinping reiterated his focus on security, saying, “Security is the foundation of development and stability is the prerequisite for prosperity. We must resolutely pursue a holistic approach to national security, improve the national security system, strengthen our capacity for safeguarding national security, enhance public security governance, and improve the social governance system.” This can only mean that even in Tibet, the securitization at all levels will not only continue, but also be strengthened. There were mere tangential references to “ethnic groups” in Xi’s speech, although Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were identified. As part of the strengthening of the CCP’s hold, some observers say that the offices dealing with Hong Kong and Macau that are currently under the State Council will now be placed under the direct supervision of the Party.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Li Qiang did not give any indications about his views on issues like Tibet in his hour-long press conference following the “Two Sessions.” He also does not appear to have had any connections to Tibet in the past. However, his position as the Premier means that he may be called upon to talk about Tibet in his interactions with foreign leaders, given Tibet’s role in China’s international relations. Previous Premiers, including Wen Jiabao, have had to address Tibet during such foreign engagements.
But one of Li’s new vice premiers, Zhang Guoqing (also a Politburo central committee member), although having no apparent Tibet background, could be involved as a member of the Tibet policy circle. In January 2023, Chinese state media reported that he was one of the four nominees from the leadership in Beijing as a delegate from the Tibet Autonomous Region to the just concluded NPC session. They also reported his attendance at a plenary meeting of the Tibet Autonomous Region delegation to the NPC on March 5, 2023, to review the government work report made by outgoing Premier Li Keqiang.
Zhang is from Henan province and a former corporate executive who subsequently became CCP Secretary of Liaoning province. China watchers see Zhang as part of the sixth generation of Chinese leadership. Given that much of his career was spent as a corporate executive rather than in politics, his involvement in Tibet-related matter needs further scrutiny. It could be an indication about the authorities wanting to focus on the economic development of Tibet.
At the time of this report, Zhang’s specific portfolio as a vice premier has not been outlined. Continue reading