The appointment of Pema Thinley as a governor of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) under China is widely reported by Reuters, BBC, The Straits Times and many other news media around the world.
However, for Tibetans inside Tibet and in exile, the news came as just another regimented official exchange of position in a carefully manufactured show. Jampa Phuntsok (Ch. Qiangba Puncog), Pema Thinley — and others who apparently hold high positions — are mascots to show the world that Tibetans are fairly represented and happy in the Motherland. But in fact, they mostly do the barking when Beijing raises a stick, and wag their tails when Beijing shows a bowl of chicken noodles.
The real decision-making power in Tibet is held by Zhang Qingli, a Chinese and the local Party boss. Zhang is a hardliner, who became infamous for calling His Holiness the Dalai Lama “a wolf in monk’s clothes, a devil with a human face”.
Jampa Phuntsok, 62-year-old former governor, is “three years shy of China’s mandatory retirement age for provincial governors”, and has held the position for six years since May 2003. His replacement Thinley is 58 and served for 17 years in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Though Beijing is mute on the replacement, it clearly indicates that Tibet ranks very high in China’s priorities. Hu Jintao, the current Chinese president, who served as the Party Secretary in Tibet and declared martial law there in 1989, senses the usefulness of a man with a military background.
In the light of massive peaceul protests throughout Tibet in 2008, and Beijing’s brutal crackdowns due to which over 200 lives were lost, an appointment of a former PLA veteran does not augur well for Tibetans. This is a subtle way of saying: Dissenters will be dealt even more harshly.
The appointment may also have to do with the recent Politburo meeting on Tibet chaired by Hu Jintao, during which, according to the 9 January 2010 Tibet Daily, they reviewed issues regarding economic development and long-term stability in Tibet. In fact, this has been the basis of Chinese policy towards the minority for a long time — “that increased wealth brings increased social order and allegiance to the source of that wealth”, i.e., the Communist Party of China.
However, according to some other sources, the Politburo also discussed putting more restrictions on religion, such as furthering the on-going mandatory registration of religious institutions and monks and nuns. Religion forms the social backbone for Tibetans.
Economic growth is, at least, what the new governor promises.
According to The Hindu, Thinley said “[that] Tibet would target 12 percent GDP growth this year, and increase spending on sectors involving people’s livelihoods. The net per capita income of farmers and herders is expected to top 4,000 yuan.”
Yet China’s promises about economic growth and massive investment in Tibet are mirages for ordinary Tibetans.
A recent arrival from Tibet, who prefers anonimity for fear of reprisal when he goes back to Tibet, said that the investment and contracts go to the Party cadres, their family members and those with connections or guanxi. “Ordinary people like us get nothing. Absolutely nothing,” he said.
Gongmeng Law Research Centre or Open Constitution Initiative’s report on the root causes of 2008 large-scale protests in Tibet testifies to the above statement. The groundbreaking report states that “’deep-rooted’ local power elite networks have formed in many Tibetan areas, where it has become routine for the local authorities to be rent-seekers and for the administration to be inefficient.” Under the Neo-Leninist system, a new class has formed who are intimately linked with the local Party elites and other vested interest groups. The sole aim of this unholy union is ‘to get rich’ by grabbing the money meant for the poor.
Thinley’s claim that the “net per capita income of farmers and herders is expected to top 4,000 yuan (which is roughly $750)” in the next year is dismal. It is not much better than East Timor’s $500, which is one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world.
Thinley was also quoted saying that “stability is of overwhelming importance,” and that “[they] will firmly oppose all attempts at secession,” a clear indication that the new man is up to the job to crush dissent against Party rule.
China is excessively obsessed with Tibet and is willing to go to any extent to avoid another massive popular people’s protest. However, the fundamental question that Beijing fails to understand is that negotiation — and not suppression — will solve this vexed issue. Appointing someone with a military background as a governor of Tibet will only deepen the chasm between Tibetan people and Beijing.