BEIJING (Reuters) - His credentials as a hardliner in China’s ruling Communist Party are unblemished, but more than two years after he took power in Tibet, analysts are asking whether Zhang Qingli was the wrong man for the job.
Tibet’s capital Lhasa burst into violence last week, a show of unrest that capped days of peaceful protest led by the mountainous region’s Buddhist clergy that were all the more rare in light of Zhang’s assertion of political control.
“He immediately went into attack mode,” Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University, said of Zhang’s tenure.
“The campaign against the Dalai Lama was very aggressively stepped up and he had a zero tolerance policy for even very small incidents,” he said.
The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has lived in India since 1959, where he fled following a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Despite his exile status, he is still widely revered within Tibet.
Zhang, 57, was brought in from Xinjiang, another far-western, restive region, where he headed the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organisation aimed at asserting Beijing’s hold over the ethnic Uighur population, some of which has agitated for greater autonomy.
In Tibet, he presided over a “patriotic education” campaign that extended from the monasteries to the general population, in which analysts say even government employees were forced to denounce the Dalai Lama in lengthy, hand-written essays.
China’s leadership regularly calls the Dalai Lama a traitor bent on splitting on the nation, but even in that context Zhang was seen as inflammatory.
“They are posing very extreme things, the ones who are currently running Tibet, and they are really going out on a limb by doing that,” said Robert Thurman, chairman of the Religion Department at Columbia University.
“You don’t hear that kind of thing from the very, very top,” he told a recent panel in Washington.
But if no-tolerance tactics caused more anger than integration, the short-lived and more liberal tack of a generation ago was also blamed for failing to keep the lid on.
Wu Jinghua, who took the helm in Tibet in 1985, presided over a period of greater tolerance toward Tibetan identity and language rights and, from the ethnic Yi minority himself, was said to have worn Tibetan dress to public events.
Three years later, Wu was recalled to Beijing and the bloody, pro-independence riots of 1989 that were quelled with the imposition of martial law were seen to have begun with peaceful protests that bubbled up on his watch.
His successor was China’s current president, Hu Jintao.
Some analysts say the split between the approaches taken by Zhang currently and by Wu a generation ago, has been mirrored by the leadership in Beijing.
“There are some individuals within the leadership who want to see a genuine solution on Tibet and they want to encourage a dialogue with the Dalai Lama,” said Kate Saunders, of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.
“But in the central Party, we can’t say that there is any consensus on the issue of dialogue,” she said.
For now, as China seeks to reassert control over its Tibetan regions, chance of a renewed dialogue looks remote and the leadership seems united in its views of the Dalai Lama.
In comments posted on the Web site of the China Tibet News, Zhang referred to the “ugly faces of the Dalai clique”.
China must “form an all-encompassing network to strike hard against separatists,” he said.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington