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The Chinese leader visited sites in the capital Lhasa, including the Drepung Monastery, Barkhor Street and the public square at the base of the Potala Palace which was home to the Dalai Lamas — Tibet’s traditional spiritual and temporal leaders.
China’s Xinhua News Agency said Xi Jinping sought to “learn about the work on ethnic and religious affairs, the conservation of the ancient city, as well as the inheritance and protection of Tibetan culture.”
On Wednesday, he visited the city of Nyingchi to inspect ecological preservation work on the basin of the Yarlung Zangbo River, the upper course of the Brahmaputra, on which China is building a controversial dam.
The Chinese President visited a bridge and inspected a project to build a railway from southwestern China’s Sichuan province to Tibet, before riding Tibet’s first electrified rail line from Nyingchi to Lhasa, which went into service last month.
Nyingchi city is adjacent to India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh – an area claimed by China that India calls its inseparable part. The Nyingchi railway line is close to the border area with Arunachal Pradesh.
Xi Jinping’s unannounced visit coincides with the 70th anniversary of the 17 Point Agreement, which firmly established Chinese control over Tibet.
China has been making a series of efforts to exert influence over the region, including tightening control over Buddhist monasteries, and the development of infrastructure including new airports, rail lines and highways.
It has also focused on expanding education in Chinese rather than the Tibetan language. Critics of such policies routinely face the ire of the authorities especially if they have been convicted of association with the 86-year-old Dalai Lama, who has been living in India in exile since fleeing Tibet during the uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
Beijing doesn’t recognise the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile based in the hillside town of Dharmsala in India and has time and again accused the Dalai Lama of seeking to separate Tibet from China. It has also repeatedly said that it will appoint the next Dalai Lama.
Tenzin Lekshay, spokesperson of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamshala (India), tweeted: “China’s president Xi Jinping visited UTsang, Tibet for the first time since he became president in 2013. It is high time for him to understand the true aspiration of Tibetan people and resume the dialogue to resolve the Sino-Tibetan conflict.”
The visit comes amidst China’s deteriorating relations with India. The move is important in the context of Indian and Chinese forces being locked in a standoff in the Ladakh region.
Danil Bochkov, China expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, tweeted: “China’s President Xi Jinping this week became the first Chinese leader in many years to visit Tibet as well as its southeastern border region with India, as he inspected a newly opened and strategically important railway line.”
Earlier this month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had wished the Dalai Lama on his birthday on Twitter and said he also spoke to him by phone. It was the first time since 2014 when Mr Modi became the prime minister that he publicly acknowledged speaking with the Dalai Lama.
Additional reporting by agencies