The Dalai Lama’s envoys traveled to China for talks this week just days after the conclusion of a high-level meeting attended by President Hu Jintao, setting out Tibet policy for the coming years.

The Fifth Tibet Work Forum, held on January 18-20, is the most recent in a series of rare strategy meetings on Tibet that have now been held just five times since the Chinese took over Tibet in 1949-50. The meeting last week was attended by more than 300 of China’s most senior Party, government and military leaders. Notably, the Fifth Tibet Work Forum concluded days before envoys of the Dalai Lama, led by Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, arrived in China for the ninth round of Sino-Tibetan dialogue, some 15 months since the previous round. Speculation on the timing of the ninth round of dialogue so soon after the Fifth Tibet Work Forum has raised expectation that this could be a pivotal moment for Tibet.

The Fifth Tibet Work Forum was the first since the protests and crackdown beginning in March, 2008; the fourth was held in June, 2001. It was not announced in the official media until two days after the meeting was over, and the only prior indication that it was about to take place was a series of brief online articles in the state media in English referring to previous Tibet Work Forums. Since then, a carefully-chosen selection of statements from the meeting has been published in the official press, including speeches by Party Secretary and President Hu Jintao, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. This ICT report analyzes the approach to Tibet revealed by published statements from the Fifth Tibet Work Forum, and that could provide context for the current round of Sino-Tibetan talks.

Summary points from official media reports
  • Reports on the Fifth Tibet Work Forum in the official media do not indicate a policy shift on Tibet – the emphasis is still on consolidating central control by further assimilation of Tibet into a ‘unified’ Chinese state – but there is a difference in tone and approach, with a notable lack of virulent rhetoric against the Dalai Lama, which is usually such a prevalent feature of official comment and reporting on Tibet.
  • Reports indicate that there is more of an emphasis on improving conditions in rural areas, although this emphasis still exists within a model of economic development based on infrastructure construction and resource extraction that has shown to deepen the marginalization and poverty of Tibetans. While this new focus on improving conditions in rural areas could be a positive step, the strategy for Tibet’s development as a whole needs to be addressed. The reports suggest that there is less emphasis on the large amount of funds spent on major ‘aid and development’ projects compared to previous Party and government planning documents on Tibet, which may signal a recognition that flooding Tibet with money does not automatically secure loyalty to the state. Tibetans from some of the most ‘developed’ areas of Tibet including Lhasa and parts of eastern Tibet were at the forefront of protests from March 2008 onwards.
  • Reports from the Fifth Tibet Work Forum demonstrate that Tibet is not of marginal concern but is a core issue to the Party, as evidenced by the strategic significance of Tibet laid out in the published statements. Compared to previous high-level meetings and in line with global concerns on climate change, the Fifth Tibet Work Forum emphasizes security issues linked to the environment of the Tibetan plateau, which is the source of Asia’s major rivers. The Party’s assertion of control over Tibet’s natural resources and fragile eco-system is in the context of an increasing international awareness of the global significance of the impact of climate change in Tibet. Many scientists characterize the Tibetan plateau as the earth’s ‘third pole’ because it has the biggest ice-fields outside the Arctic and Antarctic.
  • While the Fourth Tibet Work Forum in 2001 focused on the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Fifth includes all Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces – encompassing the eastern Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham – which may indicate a trend towards regional integration of policies across all Tibetan areas of the PRC. Government statements have typically represented only the Tibet Autonomous Region as ‘Tibet.’ The protests that began in March 2008 spread to all Tibetan areas in the PRC, indicating a shared Tibetan identity, a commonality of grievances, concerns and a determination to express a shared loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
  • The Chinese authorities announced this week that they would hold the First Work Forum on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (East Turkestan) after the regional capital Urumchi erupted in protests and rioting in July 2009. The strategy for Xinjiang is framed with a stronger emphasis on the “fight against splittism” and independence activism than in the Fifth Tibet Work Forum statements seen to date. This could indicate a distinction in the way the Party is now handling policy on Xinjiang and Tibet.
The Fifth Tibet Work Forum: rhetoric on Dalai Lama toned down, no policy shift evident

The emphasis of the forums since the Third Tibet Work Forum in 1994, which set the hardline policies on Tibet that are still in place today, has been on consolidating central control by furthering assimilation of Tibet into a ‘unified’ Chinese state. While this is still prioritized and clearly set out by the Fifth Tibet Work Forum, there appears to be a slight shift in approach in that rhetoric against the Dalai Lama is distinctly toned down and there are fewer references to the struggle against ‘separatism’ in contrast to previous significant statements and meetings on Tibet. There is no reference in published statements from the Forum that the Dalai Lama was to blame for inciting the unrest in March 2008, which was the standard Party line taken after the protests began and has been reiterated strongly by central and regional leaders since then. The carefully crafted published statements from the Fifth Work Forum do not mention the protests at all, although there are opaque references to “difficulties,” for instance, in Hu Jintao’s statement: “We must also soberly understand that Tibet’s development and stability are still faced with many difficulties and challenges and have encountered many new situations and new issues.” (“Fifth National Conference on Tibetan Work held in Beijing,” China Tibet Information Center, January 22, 2010.)

The emphasis of the Fifth Tibet Work Forum is on plans for “leap forward development,” and bringing levels of income and other economic indicators into line with those in other parts of the People’s Republic of China. The first reference to propelling the economy from ‘accelerated development’ to “a ‘leap over [or forward]’ model of development” was made during the Fourth Tibet Work Forum in 2001, with the aim of further assimilation of Tibet into the wider Chinese economic and cultural model. The large-scale extraction of resources and the strengthening of the state’s authority and control over Tibetan areas underpin China’s ambitious ‘Western Development Strategy’ (xibu da kaifa) which has now been in place for a decade. But despite the years of investment under this policy, the vast majority of Tibetans remain severely disadvantaged both socially and economically by the inadequate provision of education, welfare and healthcare, and marginalized by the influx of Chinese migrants attracted by these strategies. The implementation of policies to settle Tibetan nomads, and to resettle Tibetans in towns, is now threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. There is increasing frustration that Chinese policies of development, which are based on an urban industrial model in an area that is predominantly rural, are counter-productive; they have increased rather than closed the gap between urban and rural, rich and poor, Chinese and Tibetan, and have degraded Tibet’s fragile ecosystem. (ICT report, Tracking the Steel Dragon)

Tibetans in some of the most developed areas of Tibet in close proximity to urbanizing centers in mainland China – such as Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Chinese: Gannan TAP) in Gansu province and eastern Qinghai – were at the forefront of the protests from March 2008 that transformed the political landscape. Urban Lhasa in particular, which in many regards is a showcase of China’s development plans in Tibet, was the scene of protests and violence which were an unequivocal rejection of not only the transformations that these development policies have brought to rural and urban Tibet, but even a rejection of China’s rule altogether. The coming of the railway from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa resulted in a major influx of Chinese migrants that some Chinese analysts had earlier warned could lead to unrest.

Scholar Tseten Wangchuk, a Research Fellow at the University of Virginia, notes that while Party and government strategy documents usually list major infrastructure projects costing millions of yuan, this aspect was notably absent from Fifth Tibet Work Forum statements. Tseten Wangchuk said: “The commitment to develop rural areas outlined in the document may be a positive step, but the same strategy is in place – policies are imposed from the top-down with little regard for the communities where they are implemented. It’s about how the money is spent, not the amount of money that is thrown at Tibet. If the authorities are really seeking to resolve the situation, they need to adopt new approaches from the grass-roots up that genuinely involve Tibetans in decision-making on development issues.”

Luorang Dramdul, a specialist in development economics at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, was quoted after the conference by Reuters as saying: “This time we are really focusing on improving livelihood, whereas previous policies were mostly concerned with industry and infrastructure.”

While the Fourth Work Forum focused on the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Fifth includes all Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces – encompassing the eastern Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham. Official statements have tended before to characterize only the Tibet Autonomous Region as ‘Tibet,’ although Tibetan areas incorporated in four other provinces are defined as ‘Tibetan autonomous’ prefectures and counties. This implies increasing official recognition that the various Tibetan autonomous areas share far more in common with each other than the Chinese provinces to which they are assigned. This was underlined by the fact that protests across Tibet from March 2008 onwards were far more widespread geographically than in the past, demonstrating the commonality of Tibetan concerns across all Tibetan areas of the PRC, from remote villages in Qinghai to monasteries in central Lhasa, and an invigorated sense of Tibetan solidarity and pride in Tibetan identity.

The strategic significance of Tibet: Work Forum emphasizes water and security issues

The Fifth Tibet Work Forum places more emphasis on Tibet’s environment than earlier major conferences on Tibet and links the ecology of the plateau as a source of water explicitly to security issues. The intention is to protect China’s influence and control over Tibet’s water supply, which is leading to tensions downstream – the Tibetan plateau is of critical importance to the highly water-dependent societies inside Tibet and hundreds of millions of people in Asia. Referring to the strategic importance of Tibet, President Hu Jintao stated: “It is all the more necessary to pay attention to [//] turning Tibet into an important national security screen, an important strategic resources reserve base.” (“Fifth National Conference on Tibetan Work held in Beijing,” China Tibet Information Center, January 22, 2010.)

The sustainable management of Tibet’s water is increasingly becoming a serious security issue in the region and leading to tensions due to China’s economic and environmental policies. The stakes are higher than before because both China and India face the prospect that their modernization may stall in an era of serious water shortages. There are tensions in Tibet due to the exploitation of natural resources, and also between China, India and Bangladesh on water-related issues. China plans to build nearly one hundred dams across the Tibetan plateau and several water diversion projects to move water into northern and eastern China – plans that will disrupt the already-overstressed water supplies of hundreds of millions of people in south and southeast Asia.

From the First to the Fifth Tibet Work Forums

The First Tibet Work Forum was held in 1980 during the period of liberalization following the Cultural Revolution, and the second in 1984. Both the First and Second Forums were influenced by Party moderates such as Hu Yaobang and set out relatively liberal policies for Tibet work. The Third Tibet Work Forum, held in 1994 following the large-scale demonstrations of the late 1980s, was the most sweeping policy change since 1980. The leadership criticized previous Tibet policy for being too liberal and making too many concessions to Tibetan nationalists and effectively ruled out the possibility of any ‘Tibetan-ized’ form of development. Instead policies laid down at the Third Forum were directed at the integration of Tibet into the wider economic and cultural model of the PRC, endorsing the policy of fast-track economic development and ‘opening up’, resulting in the increased influx of Chinese migrant workers and entrepreneurs into Tibet.

The Third Tibet Work Forum marked both an official end to moderate policies discriminating in favor of Tibetan culture and religion and to an increasing role for Tibetans in government and the economy. It resulted in a dramatic increase in political repression; it led to tighter internal security, longer sentences for political offenses, increased control over monasteries and nunneries, intensified political education in schools, and more detentions. Officials at the Third Work Forum described the Tibetan independence movement as a snake, and their attempts to “cut off the serpent’s head” led to restrictions of the spread of Buddhism and a political campaign to destroy the religious as well as the political standing of the Dalai Lama.

The Fourth Tibet Work Forum provided a central mandate for the policies currently being implemented in Tibet, along with broad guidelines that Tibet Autonomous Region leaders and officials must follow in all future work and projects. Unlike the Third Forum, which marked a major shift in policy from the First and Second Forums in response to events in Tibet, the Fourth Forum endorsed the general policies laid down at the Third Forum and carried them forward.

“The most important thing in the work of Tibet at present and for some time to come”

In contrast to the language published on the Fourth Work Forum, there is less hardline rhetoric on religion in the Fifth Tibet Work Forum reports, and an unusual reference to “the material and intangible cultural heritage of Tibet” in a speech by Premier Wen Jiabao in the closing ceremony of the conference.

Although the rhetoric has been toned down, the reality is that since the protests broke out in March 2008, sweeping new measures imposed in various areas have revealed a systematic attempt to further weaken and diminish the institutions and influence of Tibetan Buddhism that has been reminiscent of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Campaigns directed against Tibetan culture and religion over the past two years mean that virtually any expression of Tibetan identity not directly sanctioned by the state can be branded as ‘reactionary’ or ‘splittist’ and penalized with a long prison sentence, or worse.

Soon after the conclusion of the Fifth Tibet Work Forum in Beijing, various government and Party bodies in the five provincial-level administrations that cover Tibet convened meetings where senior local officials “studied and conveyed the spirit” of the meeting in Beijing. Jia Qinglin, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Chairman of the main legislative advisory body in China, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (“Fifth National Conference on Tibetan Work held in Beijing,” China Tibet Information Center, January 22, 2010) emphasized the importance of the meeting, saying it was: “The most important thing in the work of Tibet at present and for some time to come”.

In the TAR, for example, a meeting of the TAR’s “Party personnel and leading cadres” was convened on January 24, 2010 and chaired by TAR Party Secretary Zhang Qingli. Officials at the meeting in Lhasa “studied and mastered the spirit” of the forum, and “pointed out that the study, propagandizing and grasping of the Fifth Tibet Work Forum would be a main task in the region’s work for the present and for the coming period.” (Tibet Daily, January 26, 2010.) A similar meeting was held in Qinghai Province on January 21, 2010, which was chaired by Qiang Wei, the Qinghai Province Party Secretary, and which produced almost identical comments and conclusions from the assembled officials, according to reports in the local official media. (Qinghai Daily, January 24, 2010.)