BEIJING (Reuters) - China announced on Thursday that it had replaced its hardline top official in the restless Himalayan region of Tibet three years after it was hit by protests, with a relative unknown who has not spent any previous time working in minority areas.
Chen Quanguo, 55, who had been Communist Party chief of the northern province of Hebei, will take over from Zhang Qingli as Tibet’s Party boss, the official Xinhua news agency said in a brief statement.
Xinhua did not say where Zhang, who had been in charge of the remote Buddhist region since 2005, would go next. He “will be moved to another position,” it said simply.
Chen will have his work cut out for him trying to rule a vast, mountainous part of the country which has chafed under Chinese rule since the People’s Liberation Army marched occupied the region in 1950.
Beijing, which has run Tibet with an iron fist ever since, says its rule has bought much needed development to a poor and backward region.
Exiles and rights groups accused China of failing to respect Tibet’s unique religion and culture, and of suppressing its people.
At least 19 people died in riots throughout Tibetan parts of China in 2008, and what Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region has remained under tight security ever since.
Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet, a human rights group that works closely with Tibetan exiles, said she did not expect China to loosen its grip on Tibet under Chen.
If anything, he will have to step up the implementation of the central government’s policy of developing Tibet.
“China now has more elaborate plans for Tibet, and an elaborate central planning apparatus to implement short and long term plans to integrate all of Tibet into the Chinese economy, further undermining Tibet’s religious, cultural and national identity,” she said in emailed comments.
Zhang cut his teeth in the China Youth League — President Hu Jintao’s power base — from 1979 to 1986 when he served as section chief and later vice minister with a responsibility for young workers and farmers.
He moved to Tibet from the far western region of Xinjiang, where he was a vice governor, many of whose Muslim Uighur people also bristle at Chinese rule.
Chen, by contrast, has only served in the poor but populous central province of Henan, as well as Hebei, and is an economist by training, according to his official resume.
Zhang was known for his tough stance against Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, a man reviled by China as a violent separatist. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk denies advocating either violence or Tibetan independence.
Zhang emerged as the loudest advocate of state policy following the unrest in 2008, vowing more of the same tough policies he pushed before the turbulence.
After the outbreak of protests, he rained comic-book insults on the Dalai Lama. A “jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes” and a demonic “spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast” were among them.
Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University, said that in any other part of China a leader under whose watch such serious riots occurred would not have lasted as long as Zhang.
“I have the impression that Zhang’s removal has been delayed for several years in the hope of minimizing any public sense that it represents an acknowledgement by the Party that the 2008 protests were largely caused by the policies he was sent to carry out,” Barnett told Reuters.
Editing by Ed Lane