Xi Jinping visits Tibet for first time since becoming president

Chinese politics & policy updates

Xi Jinping has made his first visit to Tibet since becoming China’s president in 2013, amid criticism from human rights groups of his hardline ethnic assimilation policies in the region.

Chinese state media said on Friday that Xi arrived in Nyingchi, a town near the contested border with India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, on Wednesday, before travelling by train to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.

The ruling Chinese Communist party has come under renewed scrutiny over what human rights groups say is a nationwide effort to force ethnic minorities to be loyal to Beijing and adopt Chinese culture and language.

The party says its policies in border regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet promote “ethnic unity” and are necessary to fight “separatism, extremism and terrorism”. But humans rights activists argue that they trample on religious and cultural freedoms.

Chinese authorities shut down Lhasa’s Sengdruk Taktse middle school, a privately run Tibetan-language institution, this month, advising students to enrol in government institutions, according to a report by Free Tibet, a London-based advocacy group.

John Jones, a Free Tibet campaigner, said the closure demonstrated how “every facet of Tibetans’ identity — the right of Tibetans to control their language, land and religion — is under attack”.

It is not unusual for state media to avoid advertising Xi’s movements ahead of time but the level of secrecy surrounding his Tibet trip suggested that “Chinese authorities do not have confidence in their legitimacy among the Tibetan people”, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Xi arrived in the region shortly after the 70th anniversary of a controversial agreement in May 1951 between the Communist party and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and then political leader of Tibet. The party considers the date as the region’s “peaceful liberation”.

The Dalai Lama fled China in 1959 after a failed uprising against party rule. Beijing has viewed the 86-year-old spiritual leader as a dangerous separatist and has largely refused to engage in talks with the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile.

Tenzin Lekshay, director at the policy institute of the Tibetan government-in-exile, said on Twitter it was “high time for [Xi] to understand the true aspiration of Tibetan people and resume the dialogue to resolve the Sino-Tibetan conflict”.

Xi’s visit comes as India and China have been locked in a stand-off near their border in Ladakh, following a clash that killed 21 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese fighters last summer.

Both countries have tens of thousands of troops and heavy military equipment stationed in the mountainous region that was previously a lightly manned area guarded by occasional patrols.

The countries have held 11 rounds of talks but have failed to agree on military disengagement. 

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