Beijing’s enhanced focus on the issue of Tibet was demonstrated in recent months when it sought to gain high-profile media advantage in its bid to undermine the Dalai Lama’s influence and acceptance in world capitals. It simultaneously ratcheted up pressure on Tibetans, including those resident inside China, while publicising its apprehension that hostile foreign powers are targeting Tibet to get involved in the Tibet issue to provoke conflict and turmoil. At a time when there has been an appreciable drop in the number of world leaders receiving the Dalai Lama and after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s successful visit to London where the UK capitulated to Beijing’s demands, Beijing secured a signal propaganda coup with the visit from November 10-13, 2015, to Tibet and Beijing of Ms Nancy Pelosi, an unwavering long-time supporter of the Dalai Lama and the US House Minority Leader.
News of the visit, the first by a US Congressional delegation to Tibet since 2008, became public only when Pelosi met Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing on November 12 and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang later that afternoon. The US delegation, comprising Jim McGovern, Alan Lowenthal, Ted Lieu, Betty McCollum, Tim Walz and Joyce Beatty, all Democrats, included no foreign journalists and was accompanied by thirty Chinese security personnel. In Lhasa, the US politicians met Chen Quanguo, Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) reported to have been appointed at Xi Jinping’s specific behest, Baima Chilin (Padma Choling) TAR Deputy Party Secretary who has a military background and has been tough in enforcing restrictions on religion, and Qi Zhala, Party Secretary of Lhasa who was posted to Tibet from Yunnan in 2010.
The latter two are ethnic Tibetans. The state-controlled Chinese media predictably publicised the visit and tailored its coverage in accordance with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Propaganda Department’s narrative, with the official Tibet Daily stating that Pelosi “gave high praise to the huge changes in the new Tibet and to the hard work of the Chinese government in protecting religious freedom, preserving traditional ethnic culture and protecting the ecology.” After the meeting with Chen Quanguo and Baima Chilin on November 10, Tibet Daily quoted the TAR Party Secretary as hoping “the United States would not support any separatist activities or allow the Dalai Lama to visit.” Separately, Sichuan University Professor Luorongzandui said the delegates visited temples, schools and homes in Tibet and spoke to monks, nuns and residents. He said the itinerary was confirmed by both sides before the trip and discussions covered “sensitive topics”. Pelosi visited the Drepung, Ganden, Sera and Ramoche monasteries.
Once back in Washington, Jim McGovern described the Chinese invitation as an “important gesture” and claimed that there had been some “very heated exchanges with Chinese government officials over a whole range of issues,” including the Dalai Lama. The state-run CCTV’s evening news broadcast about the visit, however, made no reference to any such “heated” discussions. Details of the visit are yet to emerge, but China’s media will portray it as a dilution in US support to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause.
Coinciding with the US Congressional delegation’s sojourn in Lhasa and apparently to show that there is no change in Beijing’s policy on Tibet, the state-run Global Times on November 11, 2015, publicised TAR Party Secretary Chen Quanguo’s remarks that “Party members and officials who secretly follow the Dalai Lama and those who secretly hold religious beliefs will be severely punished.” He stressed that Party discipline will be strictly enforced “to make sure there is no double-talking on the issue of anti-separatism in Tibet, a major battleground against separatism.”
He warned Party members and officials against participating in or supporting ethnic separatist activities, such as going on overseas pilgrimages to worship the Dalai Lama and attending prayer sessions and lectures, or sending their children and relatives to schools linked to his clique. Global Times also quoted a Tibet-based expert who requested anonymity as saying that it is “hard to identify such people because separatism is an ideological issue and is usually difficult to spot during recruitment simply through their words and deeds.” He added that “the 14th Dalai Lama has been deodorizing his image, and local governments should provide more information of his activities in a transparent and open manner.”
As the US delegation was leaving Beijing, the Global Times published another toughly-worded article on November 13. Also authored by senior Global Times journalist Li Ruohan, who often writes on issues relating to India, the article was captioned ‘Tibetan nuns, monks receive anti-espionage education.’ Disclosing that a joint promotional campaign to publicise the counter-espionage law had been launched in eight counties in Tibet this November, the article said 22 monks and nuns from three temples in Nyingchi prefecture, in southeastern Tibet across the borders with Arunachal Pradesh, received a three-hour lecture at Lamaling Temple on the counter-espionage law.
Lamaling Temple is approximately ten miles as the crow flies from the border with Arunachal Pradesh and is among the most famous monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism’s oldest Nyingma Sect. Penpa Lhamo, Deputy Head of the Contemporary Studies Institute of the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, told Global Times that “Nyingchi is of special importance to anti-espionage efforts because there are many military sites.” Li Wei, an anti-terrorism expert with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), affiliated to the Ministry of State Security, said that “monks and nuns are considered vulnerable to espionage activities, as many senior officials in China often visit eminent monks. And temples have always been a focus of government to maintain the stability of Tibet.” He added that the Internet is extensively used for espionage activities.
The article additionally pointedly asserted that analysts believe that “many overseas intelligence agencies have targeted Tibet as a critical battleground for espionage activities, taking advantage of the active ethnic separatists in the area to provoke conflict and turmoil.” It quoted Li Wei as describing Tibet as “a significant battleground for foreign intelligence institutions,” and saying the trend is likely to continue, as ethnic separatist forces in Tibet are good targets for those agencies. The focus on Nyingchi suggests China is concerned about the situation post the XIVth Dalai Lama. It includes an inherent thinly veiled warning for India as official Chinese maps routinely depict the administrative boundaries of Nyingchi Prefecture as incorporating the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. Senior Chinese officials travelling to TAR, including Xi Jinping, also invariably visit Nyingchi to implicitly assert China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh.
The author is a former Addl Secy in Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.