A former officer in the People’s Liberation Army, Pema Trinley (Chinese transliteration: Baima Chilin) has been appointed Governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), while former Chairman Jampa Phuntsog (Chinese: Xiangba Pingcuo) has taken early resignation from the post. The changes were announced at a routine meeting of the regional legislature in Lhasa, and appear to have been tailored to accommodate the retirement of Legqog (Chinese: Lieque) as Chairman of the legislature, who has reached the mandatory retirement age of 65. Leadership shifts in Tibet are closely observed for signs that the Party may be seeking to hold officials to account for policy failures that led to widespread protests across Tibet from March 2008 onwards, but there is no evidence in this case that the changes signal any new approach on policy or target particular individuals. Zhang Qingli, appointed in May 2006 as Party Secretary of the TAR, remains in place as the top Party boss.

Pema Trinley, an Executive Deputy Chairman of the TAR since 2003, served in the People’s Liberation Army based in Tibet from 1969 to 1986, a military career which could be as an important credential for the continued implementation of harsh security policies in the region that have become the norm for the Party in handling Tibet. These policies have only served to deepen tensions and unrest. His public profile had been steadily rising over the past year and a half, beginning soon after the protests of March 2008 when he was more frequently seen by the side of senior regional leaders. He was also included among the Chinese delegation that met with the envoys of the Dalai Lama in November 2008 during the eighth round of the Sino-Tibetan dialogue.

The outgoing government Chairman, Jampa Phuntsog, has been appointed Chairman of the regional People’s Congress – the TAR’s legislative assembly, replacing Legqog. Jampa Phuntsog was typically presented as the Tibetan face of the leadership to groups of foreign media visiting Lhasa, lecturing them on the “distortions” perpetrated by the “Dalai clique” and upholding the Party line that the Dalai Lama was responsible for the March 2008 protests in Tibet. Pema Trinley has already met with groups of foreign journalists in his capacity as Executive Deputy Chairman, and is likely to continue to do so now he is full Chairman.

Policy on Tibet is set by Party leaders in Beijing and implemented in the TAR through the hardline Party Secretary Zhang Qingli. Appointed in 2006, Zhang Qingli is likely to remain Party Secretary for another five years at least, when he will then complete the preferred maximum tenure of 10 years for provincial-level Party Secretaries. Pema Trinley has also been appointed as one of a dozen Deputy Party Secretaries within the TAR Party apparatus. Since the establishment of the TAR in 1965, a Tibetan has never held the most senior post in the region, that of Communist Party Secretary.

Pema Trinley’s military experience could be seen as complementing the appointment of Li Zhao as both Director and Party Secretary of the regional Public Security Bureau (PSB) soon after the protests of March 2008. Li Zhao had previously headed the branch of the national PSB responsible for internet surveillance, and therefore brings experience of information control to the TAR to tie in with Pema Trinley’s experience of military control. In comments reported to the official press, Pema Trinley said last week: “Stability is of overwhelming importance. We will firmly oppose all attempts at secession, safeguard national unification and security, and maintain unity among different ethnic groups in Tibet.” (Xinhua, January 15, 2010.)

It was also announced last week that in Qinghai province to the north of the TAR, which includes most of Amdo and parts of Kham (Tibetan provinces), Ms Song Xiuyan stood down as Chairman of the Qinghai Government to become Party Secretary and Vice President of the All-China Women’s Federation in Beijing. (China Daily, January 12, 2010.) Ms Song had been Governor of Qinghai since 2005 – the only female provincial governor in the PRC – but had held various positions within the Party and government in Qinghai since 1983, according to her official biography. She has been replaced by Luo Huining from Zhejiang province in the Chinese interior, who has been a Deputy Party Secretary of Qinghai since 2003, and who holds a PhD in economics. Little else is publicly known about Luo.

Song Xiuyan is apparently as unpopular among many Tibetans in Qinghai as Zhang Qingli is in the TAR, and as Wang Lequan in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where he is the Party Secretary. Like Zhang and Wang, Song is believed to have strong political connections to Chinese President Hu Jintao. According to one well-informed Tibetan source from the area, Song was publicly dismissive of Tibetan culture, an attitude that was reflected in her policies in Qinghai. According to the same source, she publicly refused on several occasions to accept khata, the white ceremonial scarves traditionally offered as a blessing by Tibetan hosts when welcoming guests. She has also on occasion insisted that newly constructed government buildings, including schools, be rebuilt if they included traditional Tibetan features.

The public process of changing the various positions within the TAR government began last week, when both Legqog and Jampa Phuntsog tendered their resignations to the legislative assembly. Legqog also resigned from his various senior positions within the Party, the most important of which was his position as a Deputy Party Secretary – that post was given to Pema Trinley. However, Jampa Phuntsog did not resign his position as a Deputy Party Secretary, indicating he was likely to be installed into another senior role towards the end of the week-long meeting in Lhasa.

At 62 years of age, Jampa Phuntsog is likely to serve as Chairman of the regional People’s Congress for only three years before he too – like the outgoing Legqog – is expected to take mandatory retirement. Jampa Phuntsog is not held in high esteem by Tibetans due to his frequent denunciations of the Dalai Lama, which have contributed significantly to popular resentment towards the Chinese authorities in Tibet. More recently however, senior officials including Jampa Phuntsog and Zhang Qingli appear to have toned down public condemnation of the Dalai Lama. Jampa Phuntsog is also remembered by many Tibetans to have been a particularly zealous Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution.

There has been speculation that Legqog was seeking to express his Party allegiance by donning a Mao suit during the meetings of the legislature in Lhasa when his resignation was announced last week – all other senior leaders were seen wearing western-style suits and ties. It is possible that Legqog was mindful of his options after retiring: Ragdi, who retired as Chairman of the Regional People’s Congress in 2002, went on to be a Vice Chairman of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, and reportedly continues to exert considerable influence behind the scenes in Lhasa.

Pema Trinley is a Khampa from the county of Tingchen in Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu). The Chinese government regards Chamdo as “a strategic bridge between the Tibet Autonomous Region and the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai.” (Tibet Daily, April 17, 2009.) The region has been of particular strategic importance to Beijing since the Communist authorities gained control of central Tibet when Chamdo, eastern Tibet’s provincial capital, fell to the People’s Liberation Army on October 7, 1950. The Chinese authorities will mark the 60th anniversary of Chamdo’s ‘liberation’ this year.

Pema Trinley, who has been responsible for numerous pronouncements on security and social stability since March 2008, made several visits to Chamdo prefecture last year, indicating the authorities’ concerns about the continued level of dissent and unrest in the area. Chamdo has been described by the official media as the ‘frontline’ of the ‘patriotic education’ campaigns favored by the Chinese Communist Party as a means of pre-empting further nationalist protest in Tibet, and new measures have been introduced over the past few months to counter peaceful protests. Pema Trinley and other officials have outlined the authorities’ new emphasis on ‘security work’ in the region, including the use of ‘vigilante’ squads, the stepping up of military drilling, and the imposition of more checkpoints to monitor people arriving in and leaving the area. Despite the harsher measures imposed, emphasis on ‘social stability’ and Pema Trinley’s visits to the region, protests continued to occur last year. There were several confrontations between local people and security forces in Jomda in Chamdo during the summer months as Tibetans resisted coercion to denounce the Dalai Lama, and Tibetans in the area have also carried out a ‘farming boycott,’ in which farmers refused to till the fields in protest against the authorities. (ICT report, Determination to resist repression continues in ‘combat-ready’ Chamdo, frontline of ‘patriotic education’)

During the eighth round of dialogue between Chinese officials and the envoys of the Dalai Lama in November 2008, Pema Trinley was reportedly described by a senior Party official also at the dialogue to be “the true representative of the Tibetan people,” and not the Dalai Lama.

Educated Tibetans who became aware of this news through the state media responded in anonymous blogs, with one writing in Chinese: “I can tell you, United Front [the United Front Work department is the Party branch that deals with the dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government], of the six million Tibetans there is none who have never heard of His Holiness, our Dalai Lama, and there is none who do not believe in His Holiness, our Dalai Lama from the bottom of their hearts. Of course, that Pema Triling doesn’t believe because he has been forced into no longer being truly Tibetan, he is just a dog waiting by the gates of the United Front! He only dares bark a few barks when the United Front tells him to bark a few barks! And so, United Front, if you say a dog is the “true representative” of we six million Tibetans are you saying we can only be represented by a ferocious dog called Pema Triling? You truly insult us!” (ICT report, A Way Forward for Tibet – November 20, 2008)