Why did China’s President Xi Jinping visit Tibet?

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THE OBVIOUS explanation of why Xi Jinping chose to visit Tibet for the first time this week, since China’s President also applied for his previous visit as Vice President ten years ago. Both years mark important milestone anniversaries of what China saw as “the peaceful liberation of Tibet” in 1951. That was the year of the “17-point agreement”. In this agreement, a young Dalai Lama – at the time both the political and spiritual head of Tibet – transferred sovereignty over Tibet to China in return for a promise of autonomy. But the deal, which China never kept and negotiated with the Dalai Lama, whom China constantly demonizes, is not mentioned in most of the official Chinese reports of Mr. Xi’s visit to Tibet. Similarly, China doesn’t make a fuss of a fairly similar treaty, a joint declaration on the future of Hong Kong that it signed with Britain in 1984.

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In the history of China, the invasion of Tibet in 1951 was greeted by its residents as a liberation. In 2011, Mr. Xi celebrated the way that Chinese rule brought Tibet “from darkness to light.” In material terms, he had an obvious point then and an even stronger one today. On that final trip, he was traveling on a new railway line, a 37 billion yuan (US $ 5.7 billion) line (“the project of the century,” as China sees it), that runs from Nyingchi City, where Mr. Xi arrived in Tibet, extending to the west. to the regional capital, Lhasa. Officials call it the region’s first electrified railway as a gift for the Communist Party’s 100th birthday, which was celebrated on July 1 (with significantly more fanfare than the Tibetan anniversary). China likes to draw attention to the economic and infrastructural advances under its rule. It also fondly reminds Tibetans and the many admirers of the Dalai Lama around the world that Tibet before 1951 was not a Shangri-La with ringing temple bells, ringing shells and smiling people, but a highly stratified society based on mass monastism and serfdom .

Understandably, China no longer draws attention to the 17-point agreement in which China promised not to change “the existing political system in Tibet”. Indeed, the promises of autonomy and non-interference soon proved hollow, and in 1959 a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule led to even tougher repression and the flight of the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 followers to India, where they were a government-in-exile that had no international recognition enjoy. At home in Tibet, the occasional flare-up of anti-Chinese sentiments was harshly dealt with. Foreign access to the region is severely restricted, but there is little reason to believe that the deep awe and loyalty of many Tibetans to the Dalai Lama has waned. China continues to slander him as the figurehead of an independence movement, although for a long time he only called for autonomy for Tibet as part of China – what he was promised in 1951.

Oddly enough, Mr. Xi’s visit was unannounced and was only covered in the official press at the end. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Chinese Communist Party is still concerned about its legitimacy in the eyes of its Tibetan subjects and indeed about political stability in the region, and that these fears are a return to “liberation” in the year Declare 1951 It is striking that the official Chinese reports of the visit emphasize “a new chapter” in terms of both “high quality development” and “lasting stability”. The former does not guarantee the latter, and many of the repressive techniques used in the neighboring region of Xinjiang – and which have come under increased international control in recent years – were hatched in Tibet. The result is that there does not seem to be an obvious threat to stability there. This raises another question: Why is China so concerned about Tibet?


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