China’s recently concluded national-level meetings, held in Beijing in March every year, portend dramatic changes in the social, cultural and economic landscape of Tibet, along our northern border. The decisions taken at these two plenums — the National People’s Congress (NPC) which is China’s version of a parliament and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) its political advisory body — have important implications for India.
Within days of the plenums’ conclusion, Che Dalha, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), spelt out the imminent changes in a lengthy article in the People’s Daily.
After endless speculation, the construction of the world’s largest dam on the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) has been approved. The dam itself will be three times more massive than the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze, the world’s largest so far. And it will not be alone. It will be one of a series of dams that aim to power China’s vast south-western region and irrigate its arid north, impacting the flow of water in India’s Brahmaputra basin and beyond.
Other large infrastructure projects have also been approved. These include the upgrading and extension of major national highways, including along our border, and the construction of at least 20 new border airports. In addition, the railway is set to be expanded, with Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest town and the Panchen Lama’s spiritual seat, becoming a major hub. The second railway line — this time a high-speed link between Chengdu and Lhasa — will reduce travel time between Tibet and the mainland to just 10 hours. Che Dalha is also advocating the exploitation of northern Tibet’s natural gas reserves.
The huge expansion of infrastructure and the influx of people on the Tibetan plateau, one of the most sparsely populated regions and known as the world’s Third Pole because of its large number of glaciers, will raise temperatures and accelerate the glaciers’ retreat. As the glaciers are the source of many of Asia’s largest rivers, their retreat will jeopardise the flow of water in their basins, adversely impacting over a billion people residing in the Indo-Gangetic Plain.
A central aspect of Che Dalha’s article was the issue of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Given the Tibetan people’s deep-seated belief in Tibetan Buddhism and their enduring support for the Dalai Lama, the Chinese Communist Party’s exhortations to monks and nuns to adapt their religion to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and ‘educate’ their followers have made slow progress. These efforts are now poised to gather momentum. There will be an increased push to persuade the Tibetan people and the Buddhist clergy to accept Beijing’s authority over the selection and recognition of the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and other ‘living Buddhas’. At the same time, Tibetans will be more actively mobilised against ‘separatism’ — a codeword for the Dalai Lama’s supporters and influence.
Deeper social and cultural changes are also envisaged. As already being done in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, China will step up its efforts to ‘sinicise’ Tibet and assimilate its unique centuries-old culture into the Han mainstream. Mandarin is to be made the main language of instruction in schools.
Since 2015, Mandarin has been replacing Tibetan in schools in other parts of the country where ethnic Tibetans reside. The process has accelerated since January this year when the Director of the Legal Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Shen Chungyao, announced that schools in ‘minority areas’ were no longer allowed to teach their own languages as this was ‘unconstitutional’.
Che Dalha’s article made clear that the imposition of Mandarin is to be reinforced by efforts to superimpose Chinese (Han) history and culture on the Tibetan people. Work is soon to begin on a new encyclopaedia that outlines China’s version of the history of Tibet — the ‘Encyclopaedia of Ethnic Unity and Progress (Tibet Volume)’. The Chinese version of Tibet’s history will be taught in schools and colleges with the aim of making Chinese culture the emotional bond among all the country’s peoples. As Xi Jinping said ‘cultural identity is the deepest form of identity. It is also the root and soul of ethnic unity and harmony’.
In addition to these deep-seated changes, the article suggests that Tibet’s demographic ratio and traditional social cohesion is to be diluted. The huge influx of engineers, technicians and labour that will pour into Tibet’s high plateau to carry out the mega infrastructure projects will inevitably bring in Hans as well as people of other ethnic nationalities from the mainland. Simultaneously, Che Dalha is exhorting Tibetans to set up businesses in other parts of China and encouraging businessmen from the mainland to come and establish businesses in Tibet.
Given the recent thrust on bolstering the populations in sparsely populated border villages, people from other parts of the country could be encouraged to settle there. Existing border villages, many of which have just 1-3 residents — are being enlarged to accommodate about 20-30 families. In addition, 200 new model well-off ‘xiaokang’ border villages are to be constructed, including probably in disputed areas. These border villages, which will serve as China’s ‘eyes and ears’ in far-flung outposts, are to be equipped with modern facilities, including Internet connections and roads.
The huge expansion of infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau and plans for cultural assimilation will have numerous consequences. In addition to threatening Tibet’s unique and centuries-old culture and the Tibetan Buddhist religion, it directly affects India. The military threat posed by China’s upgraded defence infrastructure in Tibet will now be reinforced by the environmental challenge that will confront India.