Lopsang Gurung | Bitter Winter
Tibetans were compelled to stay home while extras in fancy costumes hailed the President’s attempt to sell the controversial “largest dam in the world” project.
President Xi Jinping made a surprise, unannounced visit to Tibet last week, and few Tibetans saw him. It was a quickly but carefully staged sideshow, heavily controlled by State Security. Tibetans in a militarized Lhasa were ordered to remain in their homes. Only the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) loyalists with special cards were allowed outside, their role being to dress in fancy costumes like extras in a movie, and hail Xi Jinping for the benefit of China’s state television. “It was like curfew, a Tibetan housewife said, those who were caught in the streets without the card were taken to the police stations.”
Xi also visited the holy places of Tibetan Buddhism, for photo opportunities with mandatorily cheering monks. Bitter Winter was told that he repeated the usual slogans that monks should love the Party and follow the Party, and warned that any relations with “separatists” abroad and the “Dalai Lama clique” will not be tolerated.
This is repeated to Tibetans by local CCP bosses every day, and would hardly have been a reason for a visit by Xi Jinping. Party insiders in Tibet believe that the real motivation behind the surprise visit was water. “Make no mistake, a bureaucrat who prefers to remain anonymous told Bitter Winter, the important visit was to Nyingchi, not to Lhasa.”
Nyingchi is one of the places where a $49-billion railways is being built, which would allow Chinese troops boarding trains in Chengdu to be deployed against India in 10 hours rather than the actual 48.
More significantly, Xi went to visit the site of what will become the largest dam in the world, on the Yarlung Tsangpo river, called outside of China Brahmaputra. The project is disliked by Tibetans, both for ecological concerns and because it tampers with a sacred area. Local experts also predict that the immense work may increase the risk of earthquakes.
The mammoth project, however, is of strategic importance for Xi Jinping. Increasingly, water is a main weapon of war, and the Brahmaputra flows from Tibet to Assam, in India, and Bangladesh. While Chinese scientists are dismissing the idea that water that would normally flow to India may be diverted to China as unrealistic, the dam may be used to manipulate water resources and deprive India of needed water.
Theoretically, China undertook to share information about the project with India, but Indians are understandably suspicious, considering that Beijing denied for years that such a project existed, even after work to build the dam had already been started.
Xi’s surprise visit is more than business as usual. It is a message to opponents of the dam in Tibet and India that the project will go on anyway, and opposing the dam means opposing the Party.