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Xi Jinping first Chinese president to visit Tibet in 30 years

Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a rare visit to Tibet, where state media reported that the leader was “warmly welcomed by local people and officials of various ethnic groups.” (Li Xueren/AP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tibet this week to mark the 70th anniversary of what Chinese officials describe as the region’s “peaceful liberation.” Though Xi visited twice before assuming the presidency, it is thought to be the first time a top Chinese leader has visited the region in some three decades.

China has been accused by governments, rights groups and Tibetans in exile of widespread abuses in the mainly Buddhist mountain region, including religious and cultural oppression.

Chinese state-run media outlet Xinhua reported that Xi was “warmly welcomed by local people and officials of various ethnic groups.” The leader was wearing a scarf as he exited the plane surrounded by Tibetan dancers in traditional costume, in photos released by state media.

During his visit, which began Wednesday but official news outlets did not confirm until Friday, he described the ruling Communist Party’s policies in the Himalayan region as “completely correct.”

“It has been proven that without the CPC, there would have been neither new China nor new Tibet,” Xi said.

Xi flew into Nyingchi on Wednesday, where he visited the Nyang River Bridge, as well as a village, park, and local city planning hall. He inspected the city’s rural vitalization, city park building and development planning progress, according to Xinhua.

The next day he traveled by train to the Tibetan capital Lhasa after learning about the operation of the Lhasa-Nyingchi railway, Tibet’s first electrified railway that began operating last month, according to Xinhua.

At the capital, he visited the Drepung Monastery, Bakhor Street and the Potala Palace — the winter dzong fortress once home to the Dalai Lama — to learn about “work on ethnic and religious affairs” and “the inheritance and protection of Tibetan culture,” Xinhua reported. The palace is a symbol of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Xi and Chinese state media repeatedly stressed that the 70th anniversary marked a “peaceful liberation” — referring to the May 1951 signing of the Seventeen Point Agreement that gave China control of Tibet. After Tibetans launched a failed uprising against China, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s political and spiritual leader, fled in 1959 and has since lived in exile in Dharamsala, India. China views India’s support for the Dalai Lama and its offer of asylum to Tibetan refugees as provocation.

Xi visited Tibet in 2011 as vice president — also marking the 60th anniversary since China seized the region — and in 1998 as Fujian province’s party chief, Deutsche Welle reported.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, China had been broadening a “political education” campaign, Reuters reported. Portraits of Xi and Chinese flags were ubiquitous — and no images of the Dalai Lama could be found — around Tibet’s capital when Reuters journalists visited Tibet in early June.

The government arranged media interviews with civilians and religious figures, and interviews show them pledging loyalty to the Communist Party. When asked by a journalist who his spiritual leader was, one Lhasa monk said Xi. “I’m not drunk … I speak freely to you,” he told the reporter. Reuters added that the man was speaking from a courtyard overlooked by government observers and security cameras.

Beijing denies any accusations of rights abuses in Tibet and says that people in China are free to practice approved religions including Buddhism, Reuters published in June.

The United States strengthened its support for Tibetan autonomy and religious freedom for Tibetan Buddhists with the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which appeared in the government spending bill and signed into law in December. The bill instructs the State Department to deny China new consulates in the United States until a U.S. Consulate is established in Lhasa. The law also provides sanctions on the Chinese Communist Party if it attempts to name a successor to the Dalai Lama.

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