China’s President Xi Jinping Makes Unannounced Visit to Tibetan Capital Lhasa

The surprise visit comes amid restrictions on Lhasa residents' movements and the closing of the Potala Palace, winter residence of the Dalai Lama.
2021-07-22
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China’s President Xi Jinping Makes Unannounced Visit to Tibetan Capital Lhasa
Photo: RFA

Chinese President Xi Jinping made a visit Thursday to Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa, strolling in the city’s Barkor area and greeting passersby in an unannounced trip not covered by Chinese state-controlled media, RFA’s Tibetan Service reported today in an exclusive story.

Residents’ movements in the city were restricted and factories closed, with construction work halted and Lhasa’s iconic Potala Palace—winter residence of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama—also closed for the day, sources in the city said.

The flying of kites and drones in Lhasa was already barred by order of the city government with the ban running from July 21 to August 27, sources said.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Lhasa, capital of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), was his first since becoming China’s president in 2013. He had visited Tibet previously as vice president in 2011 when Chen Quanguo, now Communist Party chief in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), was party chief in Tibet.

Xi Jinping arrived in Lhasa on July 22, a source in Tibet told RFA. Videos obtained by RFA’s Tibetan Service and circulating on social media show the Chinese president touring the Barkor Old Town part of the city accompanied by unidentified officials.

Speaking to RFA, Tenzin Lekshay—spokesperson for the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s Dharamsala, India-based exile government—said that if Tibet were as peaceful and stable as China’s leaders claim, there would have been no need for the secrecy surrounding Xi’s visit.

It has now been 70 years since China marched into Tibet, a formerly independent Himalayan country, and annexed it by force, Lekshay said.

“Xi Jinping should listen to the real aspiration of the Tibetan people, which is to have His Holiness the Dalai Lama return to Tibet and the Tibetan issue be resolved,” he said.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Tibet was “certainly a surprise,” said Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson, also speaking to RFA.

“But the reality is that the person who ought to be strolling freely around Lhasa and the Barkor is His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” Richardson said, adding,  "To see Xi Jinping strutting around, mindful that he is the person who’s done more to oppress Tibetans, is a galling sight.”

Visit raises many questions

The Chinese president may have visited Tibet to attend a meeting connected with the 70th anniversary of the 17-Point Agreement, an agreement granting control of the country forced by China on Tibet under threat of military action, said Bhuchung Tsering, interim president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

“There are situations where high-level meetings are kept secret ahead of the visit, but in this case there has been no news about Xi Jinping’s visit to Tibet in Chinese state media even after it was concluded,” Tsering said.

“This raises many questions," he added.

”It’s clear from the way President Xi Jinping’s visit has been kept secret that there is no stability in Tibet. Therefore, the consistent position of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that the Tibetan issue must be resolved peacefully through dialogue is a solution that’s in the best interests of both sides,” he said.

The Chinese president’s visit to Tibet may also have been intended to signal to India that Xi Jinping is prioritizing the issue of tensions along India’s border with China, where military clashes have recently taken place, said London-based Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett.

“So this is a low-key but very powerful way of saying the Indian border issue is of major importance to Xi Jinping,” Barnett said, adding that Xi Jinping may also hope to tie his visit to Tibet to this year’s 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

“It’s a very extraordinary thing for him to do. It’s saying to China that the history of the Communist Party is directly linked to the ownership and control of Tibet,” Barnett said.

Reported by Kalden Lodoe, Yangdon, Lobsang Gelek and Tashi Wangchuk for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Phakdon and Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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