Recent shifts in military personnel in Tibet indicate that the Chinese government appears to be satisfied with how the military has handled the situation in Tibet and the protests that swept across the plateau since March, 2008. The Commander of the Tibet Military District, Lieutenant General Shu Yutai, was quietly promoted and replaced at the end of December, 2009, while the Political Commissar of the Chengdu Military Region in Sichuan, General Zhang Haiyang, was promoted to Beijing and made Political Commissar of the elite Second Artillery Corps, which is in charge of China’s nuclear arsenal.
These are key posts in terms of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls Tibet. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had a critical role in implementing the crackdown in Lhasa on March 14, 2008, and elsewhere in Tibet following the wave of overwhelmingly peaceful protests that spread across the plateau. The Commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Tibet Military District is ranked sixth in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Party hierarchy, but in terms of influence is probably second only to the top post in the region, that of Party Secretary Zhang Qingli.
Lieutenant General Shu Yutai, who is now returning to the Chengdu Military Region as a Deputy Commander, had only served as Commander of the Tibet Military District since July 2008. Prior to his posting in the Tibet Military District, which borders Nepal, India, Bhutan and Burma (Myanmar), he commanded the Yunnan Military District, which also borders Burma as well as Laos and Vietnam. During his posting in Yunnan, he was involved in issues of border security. (“PRC Army’s NPC Deputies Urge Speeding up Land Boundary Law Legislation,” Liberation Daily, March 20, 2008.)
Just three weeks before his promotion from Commander of the Tibet Military District, Lieutenant General Shu led a delegation to Kathmandu that brokered an aid package to Nepal’s military including reciprocal commitments from the Nepalese authorities to tighten security along the border with Tibet. (“Tibet military delegation offers Nepal support,” eKantipur, December 7, 2009.) China has an increasingly heavy footprint in Nepal, which has heightened the risks for Tibetans both transiting through Nepal into exile in India, and those resident in Nepal.
Lieutenant General Shu is being replaced as Commander of the Tibet Military District by Major General Yang Jinshan, who previously served as Director of the Chengdu Military Region’s Armaments Department. Major General Yang has already made several high-profile public appearances in Lhasa since his appointment in December 2009, with his name frequently appearing in lists of senior government and Party attendees of key meetings and conferences.
Just as the PLA were brought in to implement the imposition of martial law in Lhasa in March, 1989, they were also brought into Lhasa in March, 2008, to crack down on protests, rioting on March 14, and dissent.
Military analysts have reported that the security forces’ handling of the Lhasa riot on March 14, 2008, was very similar to the way it dealt with the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. In the early phase, a large number of regular troops from the PLA were sent to the scene to deter the protestors.
General Zhang Haiyang’s replacement as Political Commissar of the Chengdu Military Region, who will be one of the senior military officers with responsibility for most of Tibet, is General Tian Xiusi from Henan who has spent his entire military career of almost 40 years in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). General Tian Xiusi held the post of Political Commissar of the Xinjiang Military District, which along with the Tibet Military District has “active combat units including infantry divisions and brigades, artillery brigades, and other logistics support,” according to analysis of the PLA’s field units at www.sinodefence.com. Stationing combat troops in Tibet and the XUAR is likely to be primarily strategic in an area with numerous international boundaries and diverse geopolitical considerations; however, the presence of combat troops and military hardware in the region is certain to factor into domestic security planning. General Zhang’s promotion to Beijing could lead to him serving on the powerful Central Military Commission in the near future.
Typically in the PLA, Political Commissars are akin to Party Secretaries in civilian work-places in that they oversee political discipline and allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party – the PLA is constituted as the military arm of the CCP, not the state.
Within 48 hours of the start of the riots in Lhasa on March 14, 2008, T-90/89 armored personnel carriers and T-92 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles appeared on the streets as the 149th Division of the No. 13 Group Army – under the Chengdu Military Region – was dispatched to Lhasa. The 149th Division was also the first PLA combat unit to arrive on the scene when unrest occurred in 1989 in Lhasa – although at that time, they arrived by road, lacking the option of arriving by rail. Military analyst Andrei Chung, editor-in-chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, wrote: “This rapid troop deployment indicates that with the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railroad in 2006, the rapid reaction capability of the Chinese armed forces in the Tibet region, particularly the ability to quickly maneuver heavy equipment, has been greatly enhanced.” (“Analysis: controlling Tibet – Part 1,” UPI, July 2, 2008, www.upi.com.)
Photographs were taken of some of the PLA armored personnel carriers on the streets of Lhasa with sheets of newspaper tacked over the insignia during the protests, as if to disguise their provenance – it is the People’s Armed Police (PAP) that is generally tasked with enforcing order domestically in China. Analysts also stated that PLA troops stationed in Lhasa and elsewhere during the protests of March 2008 and beyond consisted of the 52nd Mountain Infantry Brigade under the command of the Tibet Military District, described together with the No 13 Group Army commanded from Chengdu as “the most crack combat units with most outstanding rapid reaction capability in China’s southwest region.” (“Elite PLA army units enter Lhasa,” March 21, 2008, Kanwa Daily News, www.kanwa.com.)
For largely administrative reasons, the PRC is divided into seven ‘military regions,’ with the Tibetan plateau divided between the Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions. These and the other five military regions are then sub-divided into ‘military districts,’ which are usually – although not always – demarcated along provincial boundaries.
The Lanzhou Military Region covers all of Qinghai province, Gansu province – which includes Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture – and Ngari (Chinese: Ali) prefecture in the TAR, bordering India. It also includes the XUAR, Shaanxi and Ningxia provinces, making it the largest military region in the PRC in terms of geographical area. The rest of the TAR, along with all of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces – which include the three Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures of Kardze (Ch: Ganzi), Ngaba (Ch: Aba) and Dechen (Ch: Diqing) – constitutes the Chengdu Military Region.
The People’s Armed Police (PAP) and PLA are both under the joint command of the Party’s Central Military Commission chaired by President Hu Jintao, and the State Council – China’s cabinet. Generally, the PAP, which is funded by the State Council, not the military, is tasked with enforcing order internally in China, while the PLA is tasked with national defense.