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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

In high places

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As the blurb of this book says, while information about the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is plentiful in China's official media, there is comparatively little about the people who actually govern the province in China. This book tries to fill this important gap in knowledge, providing personal and professional details of hundreds of officials who serve in TAR or influence Tibet policy in China.

The importance and significance of the work can be understood when one considers that the best-known English-language repository of information on Chinese leaders, the American-run China Vitae, has no data on a significant number of the officials that this book includes.

Members of the Standing Committee of provincial Communist Party Committee are not insignificant political leaders, even if there is an informal hierarchy among Chinese provinces based on GDP, history, ethnic composition and so on. However, China Vitae does not have entries for many members of the TAR Standing Committee and even if a name were available, the data is not up to date, including even for Party secretary Wu Yingjie who took up his post in August 2016.

Ranade, by contrast, goes into granular detail on Wu's career in Tibet and his public statements, as he does also for at least a few previous Party secretaries, including former Communist Party of China general secretary and Chinese President, Hu Jintao, who served in TAR from 1988-1992.

However, this book could have also supplemented its information with other details available on China Vitae. There is the occasional lack of clarity or infelicity. For instance, who is the Party Secretary of Chamdo prefecture - Norbu Dhondup or Abhu?

Similarly, while the note to the map of Nyingtri/Nyingchi prefecture in Tibet's southeast states that the map includes parts of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh within its geographic boundaries, such a note is missing for the Shannan/ Lokha prefecture, the other TAR administrative unit that incorporates parts of Arunachal Pradesh in its maps.

This is a book for specialists but with a little more effort, could have also benefitted a lay audience trying to figure out a foreign political system and structure. If Tibetan lamas can also double up as CPC officials - photos show many in business suits - just what then is the acceptable role of religion in the lives of TAR officials?

This is a question that is particularly relevant especially when in Xinjaing - another minority-dominated but largely Muslim province to the north - Chinese authorities have been cracking down heavily on religious observances. A greater use of charts and tables to convey such information as the hierarchy, ethnic origins, ages, areas of work experience and so on of the officials would also have made this work more accessible.

The value of Ranade's book is in bringing to an Indian audience greater depth to the study of Tibetan affairs. One important highlight is the Aid Tibet programme, under which richer provinces in China and central government ministries depute their officials to work in TAR for limited periods of time.

Some of these officials - mostly Han Chinese - have chosen to stay on and risen faster up the ranks than they would have in their home provinces, indicating also the opportunities that exist in poor, frontier and minority-dominated provinces in China for 'outsiders'.

Tibet today is vastly different from what most Indians imagine it to be. If Ranade's figure of 220,000 Tibetan Communist Party members in TAR alone is correct, this easily surpasses the number of Tibetan exiles outside China.

Similarly, a large number of Tibetans are also employed in the Chinese state's security apparatuses at all levels. Despite the Dalai Lama's global influence, therefore, Indians must have a realistic view of the capability of exiled Tibetans to bring about change inside China or to achieve any of their other proclaimed goals.

Ranade's book is the result of the research focus on Tibet at his Delhi-based Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. India needs more research institutions and think-tanks in the field of China and East Asian studies that are able to devote attention to such niche areas even as they communicate clearly and simply for the general audience.


The reviewer is a fellow at the
Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.
The write-up has also appeared on                                                -----Jabin T Jacob
www.indianexpress.com

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