The Chinese Frontiersman and the Winter Worms - Chen Kuiyuan in the T.A.R., 1992-2000

Barnett, Robert

From 1992 to 2000 the Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region was Chen Kuiyuan, an Chinese administrator from Inner Mongolia. In this paper I try to summarise Chen's policy decisions, and to look at signs of the uncertain distinctions that can be made between those which were his own creation and those which were impositions from the Centre.

After the outbreak of unrest in the region in 1987 policy in the T.A.R. focussed on security or containment measures, but from 1990, as security methods became more sophisticated, these were combined with the promotion of rapid economic development. This shift is particularly associated with a visit to the region by the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin in July of that year.

When Chen was appointed to office in Tibet some two years later he continued this dual approach, but consolidated his position by a number of devices which were partly rhetorical and partly policy initiatives: he took to overstating the threat of nationalist unrest, created a boom in petty urban commerce, and began to insist openly on the importance of state-encouraged migration of Chinese traders into the region.

From 1994 he began to carry out a crackdown on religious beliefs, which included the ban on public worship of the Dalai Lama and the "patriotic re-education" of monks and nuns. These, like his economic and migration policies, had been sanctioned in great detail by the central authorities in the Dus rabs gsar par skyod-pa'i gser zam ("A Golden Bridge Leading Into a New Era"), the documents containing the decisions of the famous meeting called the Third National Forum on Work in Tibet, held in Beijing in July 1994.

But Chen went on to add a new policy front to these devices: attacking Tibetan scholars and intellectuals, and in particular reshaping the pedagogy of Tibetan history and culture in the University of Tibet. By 1997 he had evidently read quite widely and began to present himself to the public as a kind of contemporary scholar-adminstrator. In 1999 two important volumes appeared which appear to have been designed to strengthen this image - a volume of his selected speeches and memoranda (Xizang de Jiaobu, "Tibet's Steps", 1999) and the collection of his poems extolling the difficulties of his office (Lantian baixue, "Blue Sky, White Snow", 1999).

The question thus arises as to whether Chen's thought and style in Tibet are derived from a specific tradition of Chinese administration, and in particular as to whether his approach represents a continuity with what Uradyn Bulag has described as the tradition of the Chinese frontiersman - the mandarin sent to placate the border regions, as in fact Chen had helped to do in Inner Mongolia before he was sent to Tibet.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Published Here
May 22, 2023


This paper was used in the Columbia course "Understanding Modern Tibet", but one correction has been made for this version: "fritillarii fritillarii" has been changed to "cordyceps sinensis".

This paper is a companion piece to my paper, “Chen Kuiyuan and the Marketisation of Policy”, in Alex McKay (ed.), "Tibet and Her Neighbours: A History", Edition Hansjörg Mayer, London, 2003, pp. 229-39.