By Tenzin Lhadon*
The recent 2016 Forum on the Development of Tibet, labelled as the second of its kind, was held in Lhasa in July 2016. The highly publicised forum was attended by 130 people, including politicians and journalists from around 30 countries. The conference brought out the developments made in Tibet and exhibited its modern infrastructure and achievements to foreign and high profile visitors for an exchange of a token of acknowledgment. At its conclusion, the Forum came up with the ‘Lhasa Consensus’, which in itself is a non-consensus for propounding an accord that had already been reached prior to the Forum.
More importantly, questions need to be answered. How significant is this Forum? What does the participation of foreign delegates indicate? Does the international participation make this Forum more credible?
The first Forum on Development of Tibet was held in Lhasa in August 2014. This forum is officially being touted as the ‘4th Forum’ with earlier forums held in Vienna in 2007, Rome in 2009, and Athens in 2011. The Forum is held every two years. This year’s Forum was attended by Liu Qibao, head of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC Central Committee, and Jiang Jie, who is the Vice Chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR),both of whom have jointly organised the Forum. Surprisingly, no members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), which is the top leadership of the CPC, were present during the forum, thereby questioning the significance of this forum.
The forum calls it a new historic starting point for Tibet, imbibing the “new development concepts of innovative, coordinated, green, open and shared development are in line with the times and the norms of development”. It is crucial, at the same time, to underscore the statist notion behind the new development concept, with a top-down approach that can either boost development or impose development on the region. The Chinese government’s efforts to promote growth in Tibetan-inhabited regions has induced high-level economic development – from modern buildings, expressways and highways to railroads and the bustling markets in central Lhasa and Shigatse. This reinforces the Chinese propaganda that Tibet has benefited from the six decades of the CPC, which has helped in bringing Tibet from a backward region to a modern civilisation. China has certainly made a difference in Tibet’s landscape in terms of development and it is an impressive contrast to the Tibet of a decade ago.
The 2014 Forum, for example, yielded positive results for Beijing with a British parliamentarian commending Chinese policies in TAR although he subsequently issued a clarification. Additionally, Nancy Pelosi, a US politician and a staunch Dalai Lama supporter, acknowledged progress made in Tibet on her visit with two US Congressmen in November 2015. Taking such high profile politicians on a tour around Lhasa to receive their acknowledgment was so that the CPC could claim international legitimacy.
Interestingly, there has also been an increase in the number of foreign visitors being taken to Tibet by the Chinese propaganda and United Front authorities. It seems that the 2016 forum has higher participation from India, unlike the one held earlier. The effort to generate positive news coverage for China in India is noticeable considering most of the participants were from the media. A growing number of Indian journalists and opinion-makers were invited to Tibet to see the progress and effort put in “liberating Tibet from a backward and dark age under theocracy of the Dalai Lama leading them to a more progressive socialist society”.
This could either imply that people who were attending the Forum are pronouncing that they are pro-China through their participation or that people who are invited and chosen as participants are considered pro-China. N Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu and a prominent journalist, makes regular visits to Tibet and publishes articles praising its regional economic development, which are seen as goodwill for his visits to Tibet.
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Convening the Forums in Tibet has an additional agenda. Participants to both the 2014 and 2016 Forums, which were held in Lhasa, were taken to Nyingchi and the Lhoka region, which border India and Bhutan. Nyingchi Prefecture, is seen as including the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and is regarded as southern Tibet under Chinese territory. Taking Indian participants willingly into territory that is disputed between India and China could mean that certain journalists have fewer objections over China’s stand on the disputed territory.
Though the 2016 Lhasa Consensus was comparatively more comprehensive than the previous one, it lacked clarity or a conclusion when addressing issues pertinent to Tibet. It is interesting that the participants arrived at a consensus even before the meeting ended. More importantly, the 2016 Consensus conveniently missed out on reviewing the 2014 Consensus, leaving a gap in the Forum for a comprehensive evaluation.
China’s decision to hold this Forum could be an indication of the sentiment that it may be losing the propaganda war, or to relay its development message, or both.
* Tenzin Lhadon
Research Officer, CRP, IPCS