By Tshering Chonzom, PhD, Associate Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies
What does a powerful Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China mean for the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) various minority nationalities, especially the Tibetans? The nature and extent of authority accorded to the United Front Works Department (UFWD) that handles nationality, religious and overseas Chinese affairs, during Xi’s second term is an important starting point for analysis.
The UFWD organized a press conference on 21 October 2017 on the sidelines of the 19th Party Congress, in which its leadership saw the organization as an important player in Xi’s new formulation of ‘new era’. For instance, the various conferences held under its aegis in the past five years – such as the Second Central Xinjiang Work Conference (May 2014), Central Nationalities Work Conference (September 2014), 6th Tibet Work Forum (August 2015), National Religious Work Conference (April 2016) – are retroactively characterised as work convened ‘under the guidance of the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Indeed, at the national religious work conference that was held from 22-23 April 2016, Xi called upon the UFWD to take the lead in coordinating responsibilities with various organisations. In his report to the 19th Party Congress, he likens United Front work to a ‘magic weapon’ that will ‘ensure the success of the party’.
Hence, it is not surprising that on taking up the mantle of General Secretary of the CPC and President of the People’s Republic of China in 2012 and 2013 respectively, Xi turned his attention to the UFWD. A UFWD website report informs that the highest level of CPC leadership, that is the PBSC, initiated an effort to draft regulations for United Front work, encompassing delineation of its ‘principles, frameworks, priorities and progress’. The regulation finally came into effect on 18 May 2015 and is touted as being historic, marking the entry of united front work into a ‘new stage’.
In this context, we may turn to the statements of Zhang Yijong, the deputy head of UFWD (and former deputy party head of the TAR from 2006 to 2010) during the press conference mentioned earlier which has caught the attention of quite a few (ICT and Reuters). In the four-hour long press conference, the transcript of which is available online (in Chinese), the term Tibet is mentioned 20 times and Xinjiang six times. As expected, his statement calling upon ‘governments around the world (to) speak and act with caution and give full consideration (to) their friendship with China and…respect…China’s sovereignty’ while meeting the Dalai Lama received widespread coverage. Zhang’s responses lasting half an hour were made in five parts in response to a question posed by Phoenix TV, one of the few broadcasters with permission to broadcast inside China.
Another comment by Zhang was about Tibetan Buddhism’s origins: that it ‘originated within China’ and ‘didn’t come in from the outside’.
Notably, discussion on religion/religious figured 29 times during the press conference. Compared to three mentions in Hu’s 2012 report to the 18thParty Congress, Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress had eight references to religion/religious work, wherein he avows that ‘we will fully implement the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society’.
At the national religious work conference mentioned earlier, Xi had reiterated the need for adaptation of China’s religions to its socialist society and further, called for studying of the ‘new situation and new problems’ facing the party’s religious work and development of ‘socialist religious theory with Chinese characteristics’.
The implication of the above, along with the revised regulation on religion that was promulgated earlier this year on 26 August 2017 is going to be far-reaching from a Chinese perspective. For one, the question of the Dalai Lama’s succession that has been making headlines for quite a number of years will be dealt under its rubric.
The UFWD has also been an important institutional contact for the Tibetan leadership in exile during the three decades long intermittent Sino-Tibetan dialogue process (1978-2010). The UFWD officials have also been in the forefront in making statements on anti-separatism/splittism, the ‘Dalai clique’, and so on. Many have wondered if officials like former UFWD deputy head, Zhu Weiqun, who has been the most vocal in the Chinese as well as international media in attacking the ‘Dalai clique’, command the confidence of the Chinese central leadership. His inability to secure a seat in the CPC Central Committee in 2012 was interpreted as a sign of his insignificance. At the same time, his absence from the Central Committee has not necessarily translated into a moderate approach on Tibet.
 Zhang Yijong was joined by UFWD Vice Minister Ran Wanxiang, and Guo Yezhou, vice minister of the International Department of the CPC Central Committee (See Xinhua. 2017. ‘Press conference held on CPC united front, external work’, 21 October, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-10/21/c_136695451_4.htm)