China has removed Zhang Qingli, its Communist Party chief in Tibet, three years after protests against rule by Beijing swept the region.
Zhang, 60, and widely seen as a hard-line enforcer of China’s rule in Tibet since his appointment in 2005, “will be moved to another position,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said on Aug. 25.
Xinhua did not elaborate about his new duties.
Zhang will be replaced by Chen Quanguo, 55, an economist and former Party chief in China’s northern Hebei province, Xinhua said.
Like Zhang and other previous Party chiefs in Tibet, Chen is not a Tibetan but a member of China's majority Han ethnic group.
Zhang was in charge of Tibet in 2008 when violence exploded in the capital Lhasa after Buddhist monks clashed with police and protests spread throughout Tibetan-populated areas in China.
He also supervised China's subsequent harsh crackdown on the unrest.
While no reasons were given for his removal, the action comes ahead of a high-level Communist Party congress next year that is expected to usher in a wide range of leadership changes.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping—the likely successor to President Hu Jintao, who must retire from running the Party in late 2012 and from the presidency in early 2013—visited Tibet last month to preside over celebrations marking 60 years since China gained control over the region.
Xi, in his first major speech on Tibet, vowed to crack down on "separatist activity" in the region and suggested that he will not ease Beijing's hard-line stance.
Chinese President Hu Jintao was Tibet's Party chief in 1989. His own crackdown on riots marking the anniversary of a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising is widely seen as having paved the way for his rise as China's top leader.
Zhang in his turn became well-known for his harsh denunciations of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, calling him “a wolf in monk’s robes” and blaming him for the widespread protests in 2008 against Chinese rule.
“Nobody had really seen a leader as provocative in his statements as this man, and nobody should really have been surprised that protests took place under his rule,” said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.
Barnett said that Zhang’s transfer after more than five years in office had probably been delayed until after official celebrations of 60 years of Chinese rule in Tibet “to avoid any impression that China’s policies in Tibet have failed.”
“I would guess that this was arranged for after the anniversary events of last month to give a sense that his tenure had been a success,” Barnett said.
Mary Beth Markey, president of the Washington-based advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet, said, “It’s good to get Zhang out.”
“If the Chinese government was really trying to look at how to deal with some of the problems in Tibet, having him there has been a real thorn for the Tibetans."
“We’re glad to have him go,” Markey said.
'A spectacular failure'
Many are not sure whether Chen, who previously served in the poor but populous central province of Henan as well as in Hebei, will take a harder line in Tibet than Zhang or pursue a softer approach.
Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet, said, "The reality is that meaningful change can only come when China's occupation ends and Tibetans are free to determine their own future."
Tenzin Dorjee called Zhang's tenure in Tibet "a spectacular failure."
“His hard-line policies, brutal suppression of the 2008 Tibetan uprising, and incessant use of hostile rhetoric against the Dalai Lama have deeply alienated the Tibetan people.”
Reported by Richard Finney.