Few Chinese presidents ever visited Tibet in five decades

July 20th, 2008 - 12:30 pm ICT by IANS  

By Pranay Sharma
Beijing, July 20 (IANS) Tibet may well be an “inalienable” part of the People’s Republic of China, but few Chinese presidents or its paramount leaders have ever visited the region in the past five decades. Tibet forms a large part of the total landmass of China and has remained in the international focus for the Dalai Lama and his supporters’ demand for “greater autonomy.” But Chinese officials cannot say for sure when was the last time a Chinese president visited Tibet.

During the inaugural run of the Xining-Lhasa train last year, President Hu Jintao had visited Qinghai, which originally was part of Tibet but does not fall within the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

“It is not possible for the president to visit every province of China,” Dong Yunhu, director general of the state council information office said, some what embarrassed at being asked to comment on this unusual fact.

“According to my knowledge at least one senior leader visits Tibet every year,” he added.

Chinese emperors in the past have tried to exercise their control over Tibet either through proxies or alliances. This tradition seems to have continued even after the communist take over of the country in 1949 and that of Tibet a decade later.

Neither Mao Tse Dong nor Deng Xiao Ping - the two paramount leaders of China had ever visited Tibet. Hu Yaobang had visited Lhasa in 1980 when he was the general secretary of the Communist Party of China. Jiang Zemin had also been to Tibet in 1990 but this was before he became the president of China.

Importantly, during the visits by Hu Yaobang and Jiang Deng was alive, and irrespective of the posts held by others, he was considered to be the paramount leader of China.

Hu Jintao, the current president of the country was in charge of Tibet affairs for some years. But he has not visited the TAR since he became the president of China in 2003.

“For centuries different dynasties have made special policies for Tibet,” Dong said. He explained that because of the difficult terrain and “lack of oxygen” at the high altitude many top leaders of China find it difficult to visit Lhasa.

Many western scholars, particularly those sympathetic to the Dalai Lama, have been critical of this policy of the Chinese leadership.

“The rulers of empires are rarely interested in those they rule, they administer and deal with them, trying to project a sense of permanence, but find their subjects frustrating and ungrateful,” English scholar Patrick French wrote in his book, “Tibet, Tibet: a personal history of a lost land”.

But one of the reasons for Beijing to maintain a “hands-off” policy in dealing with Tibet may be part of what Hu Yaobang, regarded by many as a progressive reformer, tried to establish. During his visit to Lhasa in 1980 he had convinced his party colleagues to withdraw the Han Chinese cadres from Tibet and leave its general administration to Tibetan leaders of the party.

Despite propaganda and allegations of large-scale resettlement of Han Chinese in the area, the population of the TAR has more than 80 percent Tibetans and most of the key administrative positions are held by Tibetans. But the party secretary dealing with Tibet is usually a Han Chinese and there is also a substantial presence of the Han-dominated People’s Liberation Army in the region to deal with any possible trouble.

However, the fact that the lack of a Chinese presidential visit to the region was becoming an embarrassing question to tackle became evident from the answer of the state council information office’s director general.

“I believe it will be the agenda of the top leaders to visit Tibet,” Dong told some visiting Indian journalists.

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