At its Sixth Tibet Work Forum held in Beijing over the weekend on August 25-26, China unequivocally emphasised the importance of security, stability and the struggle against ‘separatism.' Heralding the likely imposition of tougher controls and security measures in Tibetan areas, it also identified the Dalai Lama as "a prime cause of Tibetan ‘separatism'." This was the first Tibet Work Forum convened by Xi Jinping after his appointment as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Central Committee (CC) and President of China. A 20-character summary of his Tibet policy, which Xi Jinping presented at the Forum, contained five points. These were to ‘rule Tibet by law; make the Tibetan people prosper and Tibet's economy thrive; undertake the long-term development of Tibet; consolidate the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people; and build a solid foundation.'
China's official media reports highlighted the importance accorded by the Forum to security, stability and the struggle against ‘separatism' and observed that these had been placed above economic development. The official Global Times, a subsidiary of the party mouthpiece People's Daily, on August 27, reported: "Stressing that national unity, consolidating ethnic unity, and realising long-term and comprehensive social stability should be regarded as the primary task for the region, Xi said that the country should 'firmly take the initiative' in the fight against separatism, and adhere to the principle of governing Tibet under the rule of law." It added that the Dalai Lama is a prime cause of Tibetan ‘separatism.'
A China Daily commentary of August 27, more bluntly declared that "the essential intent of the ‘Middle Way' is to split China" and that "the Dalai group refuses to accept China's sovereignty in Tibet and wants to seize the reins of power and set up a semi-independent political regime." The statements were in contrast to the last Tibet Work Forum held in January, 2010. Re-emphasising the stress on security, the official China-Tibet on-line on August 24-26, explained that "Tibet is crucial for China's stability" and that in 2013, Xi Jinping had outlined the strategy — "governing border areas is the key for governing a country, and stabilising Tibet is a priority for governing border areas." It noted that at the recent Forum too, Xi Jinping had stressed that "China's security and stability rest upon Tibet's security and stability". All seven members of the CCP CC's Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) attended the Sixth Tibet Work Forum. Keeping intact the precedent set by the preceding Tibet Work Forum in 2010, the Sixth Tibet Work Forum also discussed issues relating to the entire Tibetan region and not the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) alone.
This included all 150 Tibetan counties and areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. As on the past occasion, over 300 officials, representing the party and the central government, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), other provincial-level areas, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and the People's Armed Police, attended the Forum. The previous Tibet Work Forums were held in 1980, 1984, 1994, 2001 and 2010.
Among some important events, which preceded the Sixth Tibet Work Forum and set the tone for its deliberations, was the CCP CC's 25-member Politburo (PB) meeting of July 30, presided over by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Discussing Beijing's security policy towards Tibet, the ‘closed-door' meeting deliberated on the "issue of the next reincarnation of Tenzin Gyatso, the current XIVth Dalai Lama" as part of the measures needed to stabilise the province and counter 'separatism'. An anonymous source, quoted by a foreign publication, said that Xi Jinping had asserted that the Communist Party would pick "the next Dalai Lama, period! If things do not go well, we are ready to take corrective action."
The emphasis on security and stability as well as ‘leapfrog development' implies that strategic projects, especially construction of transportation arteries, will be pushed harder. The Vice-Chairman of China's Central Military Commission (CMC) Xu Qiliang has already been reported by China Daily on August 28, 2015, as inspecting PLA units on China's southwest borders in Chongqing and Tibet.
Pointing to future plans, the official Chinese media has stated that the LhasaShigatse Rail line and LhasaLinzhi Rail line will ‘connect the two extreme points of east and west in the region' and that this will enhance the PLA's ‘deployment ability' and ‘response capability.' The Tibet region, it added, will in future become the centre of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. China's road and rail networks in Tibet are, in any case, all dual-use strategic projects funded partially from the national defence budget.
There are plans to extend the LhasaShigatse railway up to Kathmandu and further onward to Lumbini. PLA engineers can be expected to be involved in the construction, as also in building the second airport at Lumbini — just across India's border — for which a US $ 60.7 million contract has been awarded to the Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group of China. These will strengthen China's military presence along India's borders, Beijing's involvement in India's immediate neighbourhood, and facilitate expansion of China's strategic reach in the region.
The economic development plans decided at the Forum will promote intensified activity by the mining firms, many of which have affiliations to ex-PLA officers, and construction activity by State-owned Enterprises (SoEs). One corporation promptly announced plans to focus on department stores and supermarkets, hotels, high-end restaurants, entertainment venues such as night clubs and bars, golf clubs and private clubs, cinemas, specialty shops at airports and tourist attractions. The projects cater to a foreign or Han Chinese clientele.
A consortium of investors from Chongqing, Xinjiang and elsewhere on August 26, 2015, similarly announced the establishment of a new property insurance corporation in Lhasa with a registered capital of US $ 114 million. In addition to the induction of security and construction personnel, the new policies appear designed to attract an influx of businessmen, entrepreneurs and vacationers from other parts of China. The Forum has dispelled speculation about any mellowing in Beijing's stance towards the Dalai Lama and specifies the parameters within which any dialogue between the Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama will be held. Coming just weeks prior to Chinese President Xi Jinping's first state visit to the United States, it additionally dilutes Washington's planned request to Xi Jinping to talk to the Dalai Lama.
The writer is former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.