When UN officials in Geneva stripped a Chinese man of his NGO pass for secretly taking photographs during a United Nations Human Rights Council session on March 19, they probably didn’t realize that they were dealing with an important communist party official usually associated more with political repression than human rights.
While neither Beijing nor the United Nations has confirmed his identity, several Chinese language media have identified the man as Zhu Xiaoming, one of the most important figures shaping China’s Tibet policies in past few decades. Many Tibetans blame those policies for causing mass protests across Tibet in 2008 and more than 130 self-immolations in the last three years.
Zhu’s personal involvement with Tibet goes back to the 1980s when he was the deputy party propaganda chief in Tibet. His wife Lu Xiaofei’s Tibet connection goes back even further. Her father, Xia Chuan, was in the PLA’s 18th army that invaded Tibet in 1951. During the next 10 years, the Chinese army fought countless battles, eventually overwhelming the Tibetan army and militia resistance forces, and causing hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and irreparable damage to Tibet’s historical and cultural institutions.
Ji Yuchuan, a PLA officer engaged in the siege of Lhasa in 1959 wrote in his memoirs that the number of Tibetans killed, captured or wounded reached 93,000 in the Lhasa area alone. The numbers were far higher in the Tibetan areas of today’s Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan and Sichuan where fighting had been going on for three years before the fall of Lhasa.
Zhu Xiaoming witnessed the easing of controls and restrictions in Tibet in the 1980s following Party Secretary Hu Yaobang’s inspection tour of Tibet, after which Hu concluded that policies since 1959 had been an abject failure and that Tibetans should have a higher degree of freedom. Hu Yaobang later fell out of favor in Beijing and his reforms in Tibet were reversed. Zhu Xiaoming rose with the new hardline tide to become the United Front Work Department’s Tibet Bureau Chief in Beijing. The UFW is the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s department in charge of developing and implementing policies on Tibet and the stalled talks with the Dalai Lama.
So why was Zhu Xiaoming whose ties to the inner circle of Chinese leaders go back to Jiang Zemin’s presidency, attending a UNHRC hearing? Why was a senior Chinese official using the cover of an NGO representative and taking photos with a hidden camera inside his coat? A closer look at Zhu’s past reveals a man who relishes taking unnecessary risks by going out to conduct quasi covert actions.
In 1999, after almost a decade of pushing for hardline rule in Tibet and a policy of attacking and denigrating Tibet’s spiritual leader, Zhu sensed a change in policy when President Jiang Zemin tilted towards reengaging the Dalai Lama. Jiang possibly wanted a gesture to ease China’s entry to the World Trade Organization. After an inexplicable trip to the US, ostensibly to attend a conference in Boston, Zhu is believed to have personally renewed contact with exile Tibetan officials, as a prelude to reviving the dialog process with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. Contact with the exile Tibet side could have been made by any number of officials at Chinese embassies and consulates in India or the US, but Zhu felt compelled to do it himself. This incidence perhaps provides a clue to his cloak and dagger behavior last week in Geneva which United Nations’ officials have deemed “intimidation and harassment.”
Following the protests in Tibet’s capital in 1987 and the rollback of more moderate policies in Tibet, Zhu was one of the key officials responsible for pushing hardline thinking on Tibet. This trend culminated in the 3rd Tibet Work Forum in 1993 which he oversaw. Throughout the 1990s, Zhu was not only instrumental in halting any productive dialog with the Dalai Lama for a way forward on Tibet, he was also behind the strategy for Tibet termed “Post Dalai Lama” which calculated that the Tibet issue will go away with the death of the 14th Dalai Lama, and the subsequent Chinese Communist Party recognition of the Dalai Lama’s successor reincarnate. This thinking has remained the primary rationale behind Beijing’s policy on Tibet despite the fact that the current Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second highest lama in the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism, has received little acceptance from monasteries and the Tibetan people since 1996 when he was anointed by Beijing. The Dalai Lama chose another Panchen Lama, a six-year old boy who along with his family disappeared in China, unseen to date.
When talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s representatives were finally to start in 2002, Zhu was replaced at the United Front by Zhu Weiqun, an official with far less baggage on Tibet. Some Tibetan’s saw Zhu’s replacement as the removal of an obstacle to progress and as a hopeful sign. These hopes were short lived as meeting after meeting between the Chinese and Tibetans, from 2002 to 2010, ended without a single instance of real dialog.
Once again Zhu Xiaoming’s ideas on Tibet and suspicions towards the Dalai Lama provided the intellectual ground for why the Chinese side would not, and perhaps more accurately, could not move forward in the negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s envoys.
After being transferred from the United Front, Zhu went to work at the Socialist University. Before long he was back to work on Tibet and he became Party Secretary at the Tibetology Center in Beijing, a think tank on Tibet policy and lead organization for shaping academic as well as propaganda on Tibet in the international arena. The Tibetology Center has been a strong proponent of the “Post Dalai Lama” scenario as a final solution to Tibet, and has accused the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way Proposal” of being a threat to China’s territorial integrity.
The Dalai Lama has proposed greater religious, cultural and environmental autonomy for all Tibetan cultural regions while remaining a part of China. Zhu Xiaoming has continuously claimed the Dalai Lama’s proposal should be viewed as disingenuous, labeling it a call for “independence in disguise.” These accusations against the Dalai Lama’s call for genuine autonomy for a Tibet that is within the PRC are still made to this by officials in the Tibet Autonomous region, almost verbatim.
The breakdown of talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama appeared to have dashed the hopes of many Tibetans for change in Tibet. This combined with constant attacks on the Tibetan spiritual leader in forced reeducation sessions in monasteries across Tibet sparked the uprisings, and protests that swept almost all Tibetan areas in 2008, according to many Tibetan observers. The ensuing crackdowns and militarization of Tibetan towns and monasteries led to more than 110 self-immolation deaths in Tibet since 2009.
Many self-immolators had called out, often while engulfed in flames, for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet and for freedom in Tibet. Some written and on-camera testaments left behind by self-immolators also protested the suppression of Tibetan religion and language in monasteries and schools.
The NGO that Zhu Xiaoming went to represent at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last week is ironically called China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture. The NGO’s website claims a long list of advisors and board members who include Du Qinglin, a member of the CCP’s Central Committee and the former head of the United Front Work Department. Also listed are Zhang Yijiong, a Central Committee member and former deputy party secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region, and Zhu Weiqun, former deputy head of the UFW who has vice-ministerial rank. There is also a long list of Tibetan members, most of whom are party members and leaders who rose to power during the Cultural Revolution which saw the unprecedented wholesale destruction of Tibetan lives, institutions and culture.
Following Zhu’s banning from the United Nations, U.N. Watch appealed to the president of the Human Rights Council for the removal of the Chinese association’s credentials as a nongovernmental organization. Hillel Neuer, the Executive Director of U.N. Watch wrote that, “The Chinese N.G.O. in question is known for making statements at the U.N. identical to those of the Chinese government,” and concluding that, “We consider this incident to be an act of deliberate intimidation in reprisal against our delegate for her cooperation with the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms.”
While a senior Chinese official engaging in deception, ‘intimidation’ and ‘reprisals’ at the United Nations may seem hard to believe at first glance, it becomes more credible when that person is China’s leading Tibet hand for almost a quarter century.