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Xi is No Different

Wednesday, Jul 27, 2011
One Comment

In his speech at the 60th anniversary of Tibet’s ‘liberation’, Xi Jinping said, “We should fight against separatist activities by the Dalai group, rely on cadres and people of all ethnic groups … and completely destroy any attempt to undermine stability in Tibet and national unity of the motherland.” He further said that ‘the extraordinary development of Tibet over the past 60 years points to an irrefutable truth: without the CPC, there would have been no new China, and no new Tibet.” Xi is due to succeed Hu Jintao as the president of China and the party boss the next year.

And yet, there is a strange optimism and hope among the senior Tibetan leadership in Dharamsala that light may shine from Beijing. During his campaigns for the exile Tibetan prime minister, Lobsang Sangay, (he is now the prime minister-elect), said on numerous occasions that things might change for Tibet in 2012 when a new leadership headed by Xi Jinping takes power in China. Similarly, the current Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, during his final speech to the first session of the 15th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, said that changes are taking place all over the world especially in the Middle East and that within the next few years “changes are likely to take place in the People’s Republic of China.”

However, these high hopes have a counterpoint based on the current realities as Tenzin Dorjee, the executive director of the Students for a Free Tibet, a New York based organization that promotes non-violent direct action for Tibet’s freedom, said, “Xi Jinping’s family ties — to a reformist dad and an artist wife — may lead some to be prematurely hopeful about what he might do as a leader, but his cemented record as a political technocrat denies him the vision and imagination required to make great change either for China or for Tibet.”

Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun was the former Chinese premier and had met the Dalai Lama in 1954/55 in Beijing and the Tibetan leader is said to have gifted a Rolex watch to him. Xi senior was also the official Chinese interlocutor when the Fact-finding delegations from Dharamsala visited Beijing in the 1980s. He was known for his liberal thinking. Nevertheless, Xi Jinping personal political views remain foggy, which will likely to remain so even after he takes office the next year.

This lack of clarity in Xi’s political views, his need to consolidate his power base and his recent speech in Lhasa indicate that he will continue Beijing’s current repressive policy in Tibet. Based on these facts, Thubten Samphel, the secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Tibetan Government in Exile, remarked, “I don’t think Xi Jinping alone can forge a new and moderate Tibet policy. He would have to rely on his colleagues in the Politburo for their opinion. My idea is that Xi Jinping and his colleagues would consider the current hardline policy on Tibet as a safer bet.”

Hopes to further Sino-Tibetan talks under Xi’s leadership is further dampened by other the immense problems that he will have to face such as irreparable environmental damages from decades of unbridle economic growth and hunger for more resources; a brittle society with more than 100,000 mass protests each year apart from uprisings in Tibet, East Turkestan and lately in Inner Mongolia; and an economy that needs massive adjustments to make the growth more sustainable.

The assumption by the topmost Tibetan leadership seems to be that we are dealing with China that is self-sure, responsible and rational power that has come of age with dignity backed up by economic strength. This has led to oft mentioned and now almost a cliché statement that Tibet will benefit economically if it remains with China. However, this assumption reverses reality. China today is a brooding nation with a highly unequal social order. Its paranoid leaders are constantly worried, as Minxin Pei writes, about getting overthrown by its own people.

Dharamsala’s optimism and hope are based on the hope that there will be political reforms in China which will have trickle-down effect on the Sino-Tibetan talks, which in turn will bring a new and positive development for the issue of Tibet. In fact, the Chinese leaders have talked about political reform for over three decades but have done nothing about it. Premier Wen Jiabao famously called for ‘political reform’ and the need to have term limit for senior Communist leaders.

But such liberal voices have no real impact, as was clear from the weighty 4,600-character communiqué after the fifth party congress in October 2010, which affirmed the ‘political advantages of China’s socialist system’. Under such an overwhelming opposition to any political reform, Xi junior is very likely to maintain the status quo, which will mean that Dharamsala’s hopes remain worryingly misplaced.

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One Comment »

  • avatar Elliot Sperling says:

    This idea that Xi Jinping’s accession to China’s top ruling position will bring a change to the dynamics of the Tibet issue, that it may even break the impasse in negotiations between the two sides, follows a pattern that has characterized Tibetan politics for more years than one can remember. It is the political manifestation of the naïve world view that has marked many of the religious and cultural interactions of the exile world with non-Tibetans: presenting that which is complex and tough in a watered down, saccharine, almost infantile way. It’s not all like this, of course. There’s much of Buddhism and of other aspects of Tibetan culture that is part of an honest interaction with serious non-Tibetans whose personal interest and research in aspects of Tibetan civilization is rooted in time-consuming and difficult work, with realizations and insights that don’t necessarily fit the popular notions that others thrive on. But it is that popular view, in which the self-evident goodness of Tibet and Tibetan religious leaders are sure to melt the hearts of people of goodwill everywhere—and in which everyone is really a person of goodwill who only needs (sigh!) to have his or her heart opened by the experience of Tibet—that manifests itself in political garb in statements from exile leaders about this or that Chinese leader understanding Tibet or about the growing influence of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners on Chinese political attitudes, etc. Of course it’s even a bit infectious: think of Richard Gere asking people to send out thoughts of love and truth to Deng Xiaoping so that he will withdraw the PLA from Tibet; or even Bill Clinton telling Jiang Zemin that he was sure that if he sat down to talk with the Dalai Lama the two of them would like each other. Bill Clinton and Richard Gere may well have their hearts in the right place, but it’s hard to imagine the 42nd president speaking similarly on any other issue. Hard political truths and difficult realities don’t simply stop at the borders of Tibet. But one might think they do when one sees popular notions about people and life that might be offered to non-Tibetan dilettantes in a bland general “teaching” session replacing serious political analysis. So no, there is nothing to suggest that Xi Jinping will understand Tibetan aspirations better than anyone in the current leadership No, despite the Dalai Lama’s statements to the contrary, Deng Xiaoping was not his friend. No, regardless of remarks by exile leaders at the time of his assumption of the presidency, Hu Jintao’s experience in Tibet in no way indicated the adoption of a conciliatory approach to the Tibet issue. And no, China is not in the midst of a major swoon over Tibetan Buddhism that will alter Tibet policy. On all these points the term “wishful thinking” is far too kind.

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