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Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: REUTERS/JASON LEE
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: REUTERS/JASON LEE

Xi Jinping has made his first visit to Tibet as Chinese president, affirming Beijing’s control over a region where its military build-up and ethnic-assimilation polices have drawn international criticism.

Xi arrived in the regional capital Lhasa on Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency said on social media. He inspected the operations of the Sichuan-Tibet railway during his visit, China Central Television said.

State media showed Xi being greeted by enthusiastic Tibetans and visiting a monastery. He was also shown riding a train with Liu He, China’s economic tsar, and Zhang Youxia, vice-chair of the Central Military Commission.

Robert Barnett, a British academic who has written about Tibet, posted videos showing the Chinese leader speaking to locals.

“All regions and people of all ethnicities in Tibet will march towards a happy life in future,” Xi says in one video. “I am full of confidence as you all are. Lastly, I will not delay your dancing. Let me say this: I wish everyone a happy life and good health.”

“Tashi Delek,” he adds, using a Tibetan phrase wishing good fortune.

China earlier this year marked the 70th anniversary of its assertion of sovereignty over Tibet. That was part of a broader effort by Mao Zedong’s communists to consolidate control over territory historically claimed by China before decades of colonialism, war and internal strife.

Riots erupted in Lhasa in 2008 over allegations of religious oppression, leaving at least a dozen people dead. A spate of self-immolations by ethnic Tibetans followed a few years later.

The region is at the centre of border tensions with India. Both sides have reorganised troops to the area after the deadliest fighting in decades last year.

Earlier this month, Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi agreed to continue talks about the border standoff. Those talks came after India redirected at least 50,000 more troops  to the border. India had about 200,000 troops focused on the border at the time, according to two people familiar with the matter.

China has been criticised for its policies in Tibet, which has been subject to intense social, security and religious controls, much like its northern neighbour Xinjiang. In May, Wu Yingjie, the Communist Party chief of mostly Buddhist Tibet, lauded the progress Beijing has made developing the region, saying that “religion has been increasingly compatible with a socialist society”.

Xi told officials at a meeting on Tibet issues in August last year to “actively guide Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to socialist society, and promote the Sinofication of Tibetan Buddhism.”

“To govern a country, it’s necessary to govern the border,” Xi said at the symposium, where the party discussed policies for developing the region. “To govern the border, it’s required to stabilise Tibet first.”

Xi’s visit comes about two weeks after Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, turned 86. The choice of successor to the spiritual leader of Tibetans, who now lives in exile in India, is shaping up to be a struggle between India and the US on one hand and China on the other.

Senior security officials in India, including in the prime minister’s office, have been involved in discussions about how New Delhi can influence the choice of the next Dalai Lama, Bloomberg News reported in April. China’s foreign ministry has said the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is an internal affair that “allows no interference”.

In September 2020, prominent Xinjiang researcher Adrian Zenz released a report alleging that Beijing was instituting a mass labour system in Tibet similar to the one that has ensnared Muslim Uyghurs. Tibet Governor Qi Zhala said at the time that forced labour transfer “does not exist”, maintaining that the local government was focused on providing job training.

Radio Free Asia reported Thursday that security measures limiting people’s movements in public were in place in Lhasa, and that work at factories and construction sites has been halted. A ban on flying drones and kites was also in place, it said.

Tenzin Lekshay, a spokesperson for the Tibet government in exile in northern India, said in a tweet that Xi should “understand the true aspiration of Tibetan people and resume the dialogue to resolve the Sino-Tibetan conflict”.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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