On January 29, 2013, Lobsang Gyaltsen was appointed the new Governor of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), dampening hope in certain quarters of the Tibetan community in exile that China’s new leadership might opt for a ‘softer’ policy towards Tibetans. The post of governor is typically reserved for Tibetans who are loyal apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Lobsang Gyaltsen is no exception.
The optimism among Tibetans was sparked by the family background of the new CCP General Secretary, Xi Jinping. His father, Xi Zhongxun, served as interpreter to the Dalai Lama’s special envoy Lodi Gyari. Well into his twilight years, Xi Zhongxun wore a wrist watch that was previously worn by the Dalai Lama and later presented to him. He was a friend of the late 10th Panchen Lama and, as if to underscore this connection, a letter written by Xi Zhongxun to the 10th Panchen Lama was published quite inexplicably in China’s Mainland media in September last year just prior to the 18th Party Congress.
There are also reports that Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, a well known Chinese opera singer who holds the rank of major general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is a practicing Buddhist. There was an expectation that this background would influence Xi Jinping’s policy towards Tibet and Tibetans.
Xiao Wunan, a Chinese cadre affiliated with the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) and reportedly with connections to Xi Jinping, sought to heighten this anticipation. During his one day visit to Dharamsala in mid-August 2012, he met the Dalai Lama, Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje and the Sikyong, or ‘Senior Leader’, of the Central Tibetan Administration, Lobsang Sangay.
However, this optimism had overlooked the CCP doctrinaire approach and emphasis placed on the loyalty and political reliability of Party cadres at its 18th Congress. It also ignored the absence of representation for China’s minority nationalities in the two recently-constituted top bodies of the CCP, namely the 25-member Politburo (PB) and seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).
The 55-year old Lobsang Gyaltsen’s rise in the TAR Party hierarchy has been steady since he joined the CCP in 1978. In fact, the former hard line TAR Party secretary Zhang Qingli had made clear in 2010 that Lobsang Gyaltsen, who till last August was seventh in the TAR hierarchy, would be groomed for the number three position -- that of governor -- in TAR.
Born in 1957, Lobsang Gyaltsen started his political career by joining the Communist Youth League in TAR in 1978 and completed his post-graduate degree from the CCP Central Committee’s Central Party School.
A Khampa from Dragyab in Chamdo Prefecture, Lobsang Gyaltsen is described by persons who have met him as a dour, humorless person and an ideologue.
His work experience has been confined to TAR, where he has served at the prefectural level, Lhasa municipal level, the TAR United Front Department, the TAR People’s Political Consultative Conference (PPCC), the TAR Political and Legal Committee -- which oversees public security — and the TAR Government.
Though Lobsang Gyaltsen’s visibility appeared to have decreased under new TAR Party secretary Chen Quanguo, there were indicators that his rise in the hierarchy would be unimpeded.
He was selected a Delegate from TAR to the 18th Party Congress and, later at the Congress, elected an alternate member of the 18th CC. His elevation as governor of the sensitive border Autonomous Region suggests that he could play a more important role in Tibetan affairs in the years to come.
Possibly less known is Lobsang Gyaltsen’s involvement in recent efforts to quell the self-immolations in TAR. After the self-immolation by 43-year old Gudrup in Nagchu Prefecture on October 4, 2012, Lobsang Gyaltsen spent three weeks in Nagchu impressing upon local cadres the paramount importance of maintaining ‘social stability’ and vigilance against the efforts at infiltration by the Dalai Lama’s group.
He visited six of the ten counties in the Prefecture. However, this appeared to have little effect since as soon as he left Driru County, where he had spent four days, instances of double self immolations by monks occurred in the County on October 25 and November 7. Sog County, which also he visited, witnessed a similar scene. Driru County is, incidentally, next-door to Lhari County in Nagchu which is home to both, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognized by the Dalai Lama as the XIth Panchen Lama and Gyaincain Norbu, the Panchen Lama appointed by the Chinese authorities.
There is little to suggest any change in China’s policy towards Tibet or Tibetans and this is reinforced by Lobsang Gyaltsen’s appointment. China’s leaders are nevertheless concerned that the continuing self-immolations and restiveness among Tibetans could spread throughout the country. This may prompt them to initiate overtures limited to defusing internal tensions.