Does Tibet’s New Governor Signal Change?
On 16 January, the Chinese government announced the appointment of Che Dalha (known as Qi Zhala in Chinese) as the new chair (equivalent to governor) of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Che Dalha, the former party secretary of Lhasa municipality, was given his new post during the fifth session of the 10th regional congress, which was held from 10-16 January. Rumors about such a promotion had been rife for a long time, particularly among the people of Lhasa; the announcement made it official. Che Dalha is the new governor of the TAR, replacing Lobsang Gyaltsen, who occupied the post from January 2013 and will now serve as chairman of the Standing Committee of the TAR People’s Congress.
Che Dalha’s tenure as the Lhasa Party secretary has mixed reviews from the Lhasans, some of whom have welcomed his firm measures to clean up the city and give it a modern look. An analyst who predicted Che Dalha’s elevation much earlier in a closed door conference last year, confided that if the rumors about Che Dalha’s appointment materialized, it would signify a major change. The analyst added that the key question is what Che Dalha would bring to the chair position that may set a precedent for future strengthening of this role — and perhaps set the stage for a future Tibetan party secretary of TAR.
In the Chinese news report announcing his appontment, there is only one statement by Che Dalha himself, in which he says, “I am faced with a tough task and huge responsibility.” He then promises to “study and work hard” in the light of “great expectations” from President Xi Jinping and the central government toward “Tibet’s reform and development.”
Che Dalha, aged 59, is an ethnic Tibetan who hails from Shangri-La (formerly known as Zhongdian County) in Yunnan province. He previously worked in various capacities in the Tibetan areas of Yunan, including a stint as governor of Diqing Tibet autonomous prefecture. This report, quoting sources with strong family ties in Diqing TAP, mentions that Che Dalha was “well regarded” in the area for his work relating to the “rapid economic development” as well as promoting “Tibetan language and other facets of Tibetan culture.”
He was sent to TAR to head the Party’s United Front Works Department around November 2010 before he moved on to become the Party secretary of Lhasa municipality. Che Dalha replaced Qin Yizhi, who had held the post since September 2006. His appointment as Lhasa Party secretary was welcomed by Tibetans and Tibetan groups given the fact that the position had been occupied by Tibetans since 1980 prior to Qin’s appointment.
Incidentally, 2010, when Che Dalha was sent to the TAR, marked the last year of Sino-Tibetan contacts. In an interesting coincidence, Che Dalha was heading the Diqing TAP government when the Dalai Lama’s special envoys visited the region in 2003. While this is seen as positive in some articles analyzing Che Dalha’s record, he will likely be expected to take part in the Chinese leadership’s overall approach of concentrating on economic development and waiting for a post-Dalai Lama period.
When it comes to the economic aspect, at least, Che Dalha could be touted as the ideal proponent. One may also recall the fact that when protests spread from Lhasa to adjoining Tibetan areas outside the TAR, Yunnan’s Tibetan areas — where Che Dalha was based at the time — were largely unaffected. His record of winning local Tibetan hearts, delivering economic development, and keeping protests at bay may have been a reason for his transfer to the TAR in 2010.
Of course, it must also be noted that the position of governor is ultimately subservient to that of the TAR Party secretary, who has the foremost say in all matters concerning the sensitive region. This more powerful position has never been held by an ethnic Tibetan.
In August 2016, the post of TAR Party secretary was taken up by Wu Yingjie, replacing Chen Quanguo, who was transferred to hold the same position in another restive area, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Wu famously caused a flurry of media attention after a report by The Hindu following his meeting with a visiting South Asian journalists in August 2014. Wu, then deputy Party secretary of TAR, reportedly told the delegation that talks with the Dalai Lama were “ongoing and always smooth,” but clarified that “we are discussing only his future, not Tibet’s.” While newspapers around the world reported on Wu’s comment, with many pointing to the establishment of “informal contacts” between the Tibetan leadership-in-exile and the Chinese government, nothing really came out of this (I’ve given a more somber analysis of this episode here).
Che Dalha’s appointment comes amidst a controversy between the exiled Tibetan leadership and the Chinese government. The question is whether Beijing, under the aegis of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) headed by Zhu Weiqun, issued warnings to Tibetans against attending the 34th Kalachakra initiation of puja being conferred by the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya. As per a report by Tibet Sun, an overseas media outlet, Chinese authorities visited family members of travelers and asked them to tell their relatives to return by 3 January 2017, the first day of the Kalachakra initiation. Chinese officials denied pressuring attendees to skip the puja.
Both sides also differed over how many Tibetans had actually traveled to India for the religious event. According to the Tibetan organizers, around 7,000 people returned to China after the warning. Of significance is the fact that the Dalai Lama addressed the Tibetan people on December 29, before they were to return back to China. He told the returnees not to worry as “he will think of them and keep them in mind.” It would be useful to observe the fate of the returnees in the coming days, given that many were detained upon their return after attending the Kalachakra puja in 2012. However, their fate would not be a verdict on Che Dalha, given that Zhu Weiqun of the central government might be calling the shots.
It is difficult to assess Zhu’s position in Xi Jinping’s scheme of things. Even after being moved out of the more powerful UFWD, where he had served as deputy head from 2002, to the CPPCC, he has continued to give statements related to Tibet in the Chinese media, in effect functioning as Xi’s informal spokesperson on the Tibet issue. Zhu was formerly responsible for Tibet-related affairs and also the interlocutor to the Sino-Tibetan talks from the Chinese side. The fact that he gets such space to discuss sensitive issues might mean that he has the backing of some, if not all, of the top leadership.
However, many of the Tibetan leaders-in-exile that I met during a field trip to Dharamsala in October 2015 believe that Xi is waiting for his second term to undertake a grand initiative on Tibet. Rumor has it that during Xi’s early years in power, the leader summoned officials responsible for Tibetan affairs to discuss important issues at the sidelines of the annual National People’s Congress. According to the rumor, Zhu was categorically admonished when he tried to take a hardline stance during the discussion on Tibet. Be as it may, currently Zhu still seems to have some clout.
In early December 2015, Zhu made an important intervention on the selection of reincarnate lamas – he announced that the Chinese authorities were in the process of creating a database of “living Buddhas” or rinpoches that would enable the authorities to sift fake rinpoches from “legitimate” ones. Zhu has also insisted that the Dalai Lama must not and has no right to abolish the institution of the Dalai Lama and that China reserves the right to do so. The reincarnation issue is embedded within the larger contest over the question of Tibet’s historical status and who controls the appointment of the Dalai Lama, the highest office of Tibetan Buddhism since the 17th century. Obviously, a lot is at stake on all sides of the Sino-Tibetan divide.
How things shake out over the coming years will depend largely on who holds leadership positions on Tibetan issues. While new governor Che Dalha is not the most powerful figure on Tibet — he is trumped by the central government, as well as the TAR Party secretary — he is still a man to watch.
This article was originally published in The Diplomat on 19 January 2017.