The reasons for the handover, which has not been officially announced, are not clear. The appointment of regional Party Secretaries is carried out by the Party’s Central Committee in Beijing in a highly secretive process. Since the establishment of the regional Chinese Communist Party in Tibet in 1965, no Tibetans have been appointed to this most senior post in the region.
The long-standing Deputy Party Secretary of the TAR Party Committee, Ragdi, is finally leaving his post after 18 years to take up a promotion in Beijing. Ragdi and another Tibetan leader, Phagpalha Geleg Namgyal, were apparently instrumental in choosing Ragdi’s successor, his close political associate Jampa Phuntsog. Ragdi has been influential in his position in the TAR, and is said by observers to have taken the centre stage at various political meetings even when Guo Jinlong was present, in contrast to his lower-profile role with Guo’s predecessor Chen Kuiyuan. Ragdi, who comes from a poor peasant background and joined the Party in 1961, has earned the reputation of a reliable official to be maintained in a senior position as a sign of Tibetan involvement in the decision-making process. The fact that he retained his senior position during a time of so many political upheavals suggests that he has not presented any threat to the leadership or advanced any policies that could be questioned by the Party.
Guo Jinlong’s appointment as Party Secretary in 2000 was greeted with some relief by Tibetan cadres and intellectuals following the hardline policies of his predecessor Chen Kuiyuan on culture and religion. Chen had formerly served in Inner Mongolia, a minority autonomous region now dominated culturally and economically by ethnic Chinese, and arrived in Tibet at the beginning of the 1990s with a similar ideological mission, reflecting the policy of the Party to tighten political control of Tibetan areas. The final year of Chen’s tenure in Tibet, a few months before 56-year old former magistrate Guo Jinlong took over, was marked by a crackdown on religion in the form of searches of homes for religious objects and a ban on some religious festivals in the countryside outside Lhasa. Even some Party members are said to have expressed concern about the discontent caused by these policies, feeling that they would ultimately be;counter-productive. Guo Jinlong, a former magistrate from Nanjing in Jiangsu province, pledged to maintain the continuity of Chen’s policies following his appointment in October of that year, but implementation of the policies was less aggressive following the handover. His appointment appeared to signify an emphasis on economic development as opposed to the strong focus on control and repression under Chen.
Guo Jinlong made himself more accessible to the Western media than previous Party Secretaries, reflecting the Party’s new confidence in Tibet policy in recent years. He hosted a press conference for Western journalists during one of two official press trips to the TAR last autumn. In an interview with the New York Times on 7 November 2001, Guo emphasised the importance of fast-track economic development while yielding no ground to the Dalai Lama.In the interview with China correspondent Erik Eckholm, Guo Jinlong said that the Dalai Lama was seen by most Tibetans as “a schemer, a splittist and an opportunist” and stressed the requirement of atheism for Party members. But he also said that China’s struggle against the Dalai Lama and Tibet “separatists” was not a part of the global war against terror following 11 September 2001, and he expressed confidence that people’s commitment to Chinese socialism would increase as the economy developed and both Tibetan and Chinese became more prosperous. Eckholm described Guo as “an urbane and polished official”.
A blueprint to tackle Tibet’s “backwardness”
Both Hu Jintao and former President and Party Secretary Jiang Zemin have a personal interest in the leadership of Tibet, and Hu Jintao in particular is likely to be instrumental in the changeover of TAR leadership to 58-year old Yang Chuantang, deputy Party secretary of the Party committee since 1995. An interview with Yang Chuantang in Beijing Review in July 1998 indicated that he was aware of the socio-economic problems confronting the Tibetan people. Yang Chuantang summarised the “major hindrances” to Tibet’s economic growth as the “backwardness” of farming and animal husbandry, which support the development of secondary and tertiary industries; the undeveloped infrastructure and communications network, and the shortage of high-level professionals due to the inadequate provision of primary, university and technical education.
Yang outlined a “blueprint” for tackling these obstacles, including the “natural resources converted into profit strategy” and “development and opening up strategy”. The third part of the blueprint outlined by Yang was the modernisation of Tibet through developing science, technology and education, where Yang referred to the need to train and educate Tibetans. He did not refer to the need to bring in skilled Chinese to assist in the region’s development, which is often emphasised by officials with reference to the current campaign to develop the western regions. In the fourth strategy of the blueprint, Yang mentions the need to assess priority for development according to the conditions in Tibet, saying: “For instance, while many cinemas in the inland areas were galvanised by record bookings for the movie Titanic, Tibet did not import the film since the local consumer market is not big enough.” Yang concluded that he was “confident that Tibet will be progressing into a modernised society along with all the Chinese people by the middle of the next century.”
While there is a constitutional requirement for the chairman of an autonomous government to be a national of the region, there is no such legal obligation on the Party. Historian Tsering Shakya says: “This failure remains a crucial test of the Party’s ability to nurture indigenous figures with leadership qualities. After more than 40 years of Communist rule, the failure to appoint a Tibetan leader in the region seems increasingly hard to justify.” (“Leaders in Tibet: A Directory”, Tibet Information Network, 1997).
The regional Communist Party system follows the provincial Party structure in existence in China, with a regional equivalent of the Central Committee, led by a Party Secretary who presides over day to day affairs in the region. A Party Secretary in Tibet today wields less influence than at any other time, particularly since the mid-1990s, when policies of economic development framed in ideological terms were fully endorsed by the Party, marking an end to earlier positive discrimination practices that had previously been at the basis of China’s policy towards its non-Chinese nationalities. TAR Party Secretaries now have little opportunity to mark their personal mark on policy or implementation, because the economy is so highly subsidised and all policy is planned and tightly controlled from the centre, in addition to the political sensitivities with regard to the authorities?stance on eradicating “splittism” in Tibetan areas. In contrast, Party Secretaries in more prosperous areas such as the eastern coastal regions often have a level of power that rivals that of senior ministers in Beijing.
Visit of the Dalai Lama’s envoys to Tibet
The personal interest in Tibet and concern about the representation of Tibet policy to the outside world among the central leadership was a factor leading to the visit of a delegation led by the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy, Lodi Gyari, to Lhasa and Beijing last September. This represented the first formal communication between China and the exile government for a decade. It was an important step by the Chinese authorities to allow Lodi Gyari to travel to Tibet as well as Beijing, although it appears to have been a deliberate decision by the authorities for the delegation to meet only Tibetan rather than more senior Chinese leaders of the TAR such as Guo Jinlong. The visit provided an opportunity for Tibetan leaders in Tibet to speak directly to senior representatives from exile for the first time, and in keeping with the “confidence-building” tone of the visit, discussions on sensitive political subjects were avoided in favour of talks about Tibetan culture, lifestyles and tradition.
Both the Dalai Lama and the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, have expressed optimism in recent weeks about the possibility of a second delegation to China in May or June. It is not yet known whether this visit will go ahead, due to factors including the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis in China. Meetings that are regarded as a high political priority, such as the talks on North Korea and the visit of India’s Defence Minister George Fernandes to Beijing last month, have still gone ahead in the past few months despite SARS.