UPDATE September 2, 2011: Reports in China’s official media have now confirmed that Zhang Qingli has been appointed Party Secretary of Hebei Province, a relatively poor agrarian province despite its proximity to Beijing. Commentators have noted that Hebei has a sizeable community of Catholics loyal to Rome and the Holy See, and they therefore expect Zhang may oversee the implementation of similarly aggressive security and religion policies to those he imposed in the TAR.

Party Secretary Zhang Qingli, known by Tibetans for his political extremism and vituperative attacks against the Dalai Lama, has been replaced as Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) by Chen Quanguo, the former Governor and Deputy Party chief of Hebei province. Unlike Zhang who came to the TAR in 2006 after establishing his credentials as a hardliner in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonmous Region, Chen has no experience in China’s “minority” areas or distinguishing career highlights to suggest a similarly zealous ideological bent.

Mary Beth Markey, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Tibetans are sure to welcome the departure of Zhang Qingli whose slurs and histrionics made him a divisive force in the TAR. Chen Quanguo has an opportunity to set a more measured tone in the TAR, even if no policy shift is signalled by his appointment.”

The Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, announced the appointment today of Chen Quanguo as TAR Party Secretary alongside other routine announcements of other senior officials in other parts of the country retiring or being transferred. Of the ten individuals to ever hold the post of TAR Party Secretary, the most powerful political figure in the TAR, none have been Tibetan, and there is no Tibetan holding a Party position at the national level.

No information was given about Zhang Qingli’s next posting other than: “Zhang Qingli, Chen’s predecessor, will be moved to another position.” (Xinhua, August 25). There have been rumors about 60-year old Zhang Qingli’s departure for some months, and it is expected that he will be promoted to a new position prior to his retirement.

In March 2008, during Zhang’s tenure as TAR Party Secretary, protests broke out in Lhasa and eastern Tibet that led to the most sustained period of protests and resistance to Chinese rule across Tibet since the Chinese invasion in 1949-50. Zhang presided over the implementation of a pervasive and sometimes violent crackdown against Tibetans in the TAR. It is possible that Zhang Qingli’s removal was delayed in an attempt to prevent any impression that the unrest since March 2008 was caused by Party policy on Tibet.

Zhang’s replacement, an economist by training, is tasked with the rollout of China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, Beijing’s ambitious long-term strategy to industrialize the Tibetan plateau, replacing predominantly rural, nomadic land use with heavy industrialization concentrated in intensive urbanized zones amid concerns that the fragile high-altitude plateau is climatically unable to bear such intensification. Chinese government plans for the complete integration of Tibet into the Chinese economy and state are concentrated on the extraction and removal of specific commodities, notably copper, gold, silver, electricity and water for use by Chinese industries far from Tibet.

China’s long-term strategy for the year 2012 and beyond involves a re-centralization of power, diminishing the scope of provincial and local leaders to implement national policies according to local circumstances.

The departure of Zhang Qingli

Zhang Qingli was made the acting secretary of Tibet’s Communist Party Committee in November 2005 and formally appointed the Secretary of the Communist Party of China Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region in May 2006. (Xinhua, Zhang Qingli becomes new Party chief of Tibet). He was also appointed as First Secretary of the TAR Military Sub-Region. Upon his arrival in the TAR, Zhang began to implement the Party’s hardline policies on the practice and institutions of Tibetan Buddhism with a particular zeal that distinguished his approach from his predecessors, Yang Chuantang and before him, Guo Jinlong.

Mary Beth Markey said: “Zhang’s extremist approach fed the anger and despair among Tibetans that in turn fuelled the protests and riots on the streets of Lhasa in March 2008. Hardline policies like ‘patriotic education’ that he was in charge of implementing in the TAR, clearly failed to achieve the ‘stability’ they were meant to foster and ultimately exposed the estrangement of the Tibetan people from the Chinese government.”

As Party Secretary Zhang Qingli zealously reinstated mechanisms of social and political control that owe their roots — both historically and ideologically — to the political extremism of the Mao era. Zhang’s ideological position followed in the tradition of previous hardliners in the TAR, TAR Party Secretary Chen Kuiyan (1992 to 2000), i.e., the Party is engaged in a “life and death struggle” with the Dalai Lama, and provided justification for the implementation of intense “patriotic education” in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, nunneries and the wider Tibetan society. Among the grievances of monks whose March 10 street protest in Lhasa began the Tibet-wide protests in 2008 was the impact of this ideological campaign and its stifling of religious practice.

Zhang’s frequent and hostile rhetoric against the Dalai Lama, who he described as “the biggest obstacle hindering Tibetan Buddhism from establishing normal order,” and “a wolf in monk’s clothes, a devil with a human face,” caused deep anguish to the majority of Tibetans, as did his claims that “The Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans.”

Chen Quanguo

Chen Quanguo has spent his entire career in Henan and Hebei provinces in the immediate vicinity of Beijing Municipality, according to his official biographical information. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1976 towards the end of the Cultural Revolution and spent the next 20 years or so steadily advancing from working in a car parts factory to becoming Party Secretary of a county in Henan Province.

In the mid-1990s, he was appointed to fairly senior Party posts in medium-sized cities in Henan, before gaining a masters degree in economics, which he completed in 1997. His career then appears to have accelerated during the late 1990s and into the mid 2000s, by which time he was Deputy Governor of Henan Province as well as head of the Party’s influential Organization Department, overseeing Party appointments throughout the province.

It is not known when Chen Quanguo would have been tipped to replace Zhang Qingli as Party Secretary of the TAR; however, it could be speculated that an abrupt career change in November 2009 marked the beginning of the process when he was appointed Deputy Party Secretary of neigboring Hebei Province. A mere month later, he was appointed Acting Governor of Hebei Province, filling the post vacated by Hu Chunhua (a rising star on the Chinese political scene who has served in the TAR and who is often referred to as “Little Hu” because of his similarities with Chinese President Hu Jintao), who himself went on to be Party Secretary of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR).

Both Hu Chunhua and Chen Quanguo therefore served briefly as governors of Hebei Province – both served as acting or full Governor for around a year and a half each – before going on to become Party Secretaries of the IMAR and TAR respectively.

It is not clear at present what expertise or experience Chen Quanguo brings to the key post of TAR Party Secretary. His masters degree in economics was gained from a relatively small university at a time when his career was already fairly well established, and he does not appear to have had any stand-out moments or conspicuous successes in his previous postings.

Mary Beth Markey said: “Chen Quanguo is sufficiently credentialed to be Party Secretary in the TAR, but it is possible that his appointment may signal a tempering approach by Beijing. Beijing may want someone in this position who is able to implement Party and government policy with less aggression, and who may be less likely to deliberately antagonize the vast majority of Tibetans who remain loyal to the Dalai Lama.”

In a message conveyed on Twitter today in Chinese, the well-known Tibetan writer Woeser made the wry comment: “Someone from Henan called Chen Quanguo replacing someone from Shandong called Zhang Qingli to come and rule the TAR. He was the Governor of Hebei before… It’s like a play where the main protagonists come and go, while Tibet is nothing more than their stage and Tibetans can do nothing but passively accept.”

Background on Zhang Qingli

Zhang’s political career started when he joined the Party in the early 1970s in his native Shandong province. During the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution, a period when a degree of aggressive political fanaticism was essential to protect and advance one’s career in the Party, he quickly rose from being a general worker at a large fertilizer plant to become Deputy Party Secretary of the plant’s Party Committee.

In 1979 he was seconded to the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China (CYLC) in Beijing. He remained at the CYLC in various capacities until 1986, during which time he became an associate of Hu Jintao, who headed the CYLC from 1984–1985.

Following postings to a sequence of increasingly senior Party positions mainly in propaganda departments, Zhang was transferred to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in October 1999 where he served on the Regional Standing Committee — a core group within the Regional Party Committee — as well as serving concurrently as Deputy Secretary and Commander of a large quasi-military industrial and agricultural concern in Xinjiang, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), commonly known by its abbreviated name in Chinese, the bingtuan. The bingtuan has de facto jurisdiction over several large towns in the XUAR, as well as over vast swathes of farmland, operating its own courts, prisons and other services such as schools and medical provision. Founded in 1954, the bingtuan has enabled the settlement of millions of Chinese farmers and workers in the XUAR, and has done so with a strong political message of promoting “stability” in the XUAR, as well as settling and consolidating the XUAR’s international borders.

It was while he was in the XUAR that Zhang Qingli worked under the long-serving Party Secretary of the XUAR, Wang Lequan, and where Zhang developed a reputation for his ideological fervor.

As with Tibet, there is a long history of opposition and resistance to China’s rule in Xinjiang, fuelled in large part by a conviction among many of the 8 million or so Uyghur people that Xinjiang — which Uyghurs frequently refer to by its historical name of East Turkistan — was an independent nation for much of its history, aside from occasional periods when imperial powers, including China, Russia and Britain, held military or political sway over the local political elites.

Like Tibetans, the Uyghur people have in recent decades faced prolonged and relentless pressure on their cultural identity, in large part due to the influx of settlers from the Chinese mainland, but also due to government policies intended to severely curtail and control cultural and religious activities (most Uyghurs are Muslim). As with Buddhism in Tibet, the moderate and permissive forms of Islam that prevail in Xinjiang are seen as integral to Uyghur nationalism. In recent years, Uyghur nationalism has been depicted by the Chinese authorities as being dangerously close to global jihad movements.

With over six years of experience in the XUAR, Zhang Qingli was installed as acting Party Secretary of the TAR in November 2005 after his predecessor, Yang Chuantang, left the post prematurely due to illness.

The demand for intensified patriotic education set the tone for Zhang’s continued tenure in the TAR. While statements and edicts banning, for example, government workers — serving and retired — as well as students and all Party members from observing Buddhist festivals and celebrating the Dalai Lama have been standard since the mid-1990s, Zhang set a new precedent by advertising some of these edicts publicly on websites or in the press.

In December 2006, the Lhasa government published an edict in one of the city’s newspapers forbidding Party members, government workers and students from marking a Buddhist festival, saying it had become necessary for the government to “strengthen and tighten up the education, guidance and management of the broad masses of cadres and staff.” Also in the late 1990s, the government demanded that any government employee with children studying in schools run by the “Dalai clique” in India should recall their children or face expulsion from the Party and dismissal from their jobs. This call was renewed in July 2008, and for the first time published online in the state media.

For some time, Zhang’s approach has alienated the Tibetan elites in the TAR, serving and retired Party and government officials who the Chinese authorities have tended to rely upon to lend a degree of legitimacy to the power structures in Tibet. The edict ordering Tibetan officials to recall their children from schools in India appeared at the same time as other news that 13 Tibetan officials within the Lhasa government had been dismissed for apparently falling short on requirements under the “patriotic education” campaign.

Zhang used the Olympic stage as a platform for his rhetoric at the height of the crackdown when the Olympic flame was brought to Lhasa in June 2008 amid an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and was rebuked by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for doing so. He said that the Chinese authorities could “bring more glory to the Olympic spirit” by “firmly smashing” the Dalai Lama’s plans to “ruin” the Games. Zhang was accused by the IOC of “politicizing” the Games in a letter to the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG). BOCOG, whose executive president Guo Jinlong himself served as TAR Party Secretary from 2000 to 2004, did not respond directly to the accusation that Zhang’s comments “politicized” the Olympics, but a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the charge, saying instead that Zhang was “striving to further stabilize the Tibet region and create a harmonious and stable environment for the Olympic Games.”