Xi Jinping’s ‘July 1 Medal’ For Tibetan Herder Brings Focus Back On China’s Border Defence Villages Along Indian Frontier
Zhuoga, whose story served as the model for the launch of the border defence villages programme, has been awarded the July 1 Medal by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Just days after the conclusion of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) 19th Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping replied to a letter written to him by two sisters from a Tibetan herder family — a rare response to the flood of correspondence received by the Chinese leader from the public.
The two women — Zhuoga and Yangzom, residents of the Yumai village in Tibet’s Lhunze County, a region which lies along the McMahon line or close to the border with Arunachal Pradesh, were the only inhabitants of their remote 1,976-square-kilometre settlement along with their father between 1979 and 1996.
Called a “three-people township”, Yumai’s population grew to 32 by 2017, and it was this feat that the two sisters narrated in their letter to Xi.
In his reply, Xi praised the family’s effort to “protect Chinese territory”, exhorted them and others to continue to defend the “sacred homeland”, and called on more herders to put down roots in the frozen soil of the border areas “like galsang flowers” and become the “guardians of Chinese territory”.
“Your home is Yumai, and your country is China. Grazing and guarding the border is your duty,” the Chinese President wrote back, adding, “We will safeguard every blade of grass and tree on the motherland’s border well”.
Xi did not mention the threat the border had to be safeguarded from. That part had been taken care of by the head of the village when, in 2015, he said, “Yumai would be occupied by India already if the family had decided to leave”.
The letter and Xi’s response to it was most likely part a choreographed exercise — the story of the ‘two Tibetan sisters who saved the homeland’ was to serve as a model for Xi’s ‘Xiaokang’ (well-off) border villages programme.
In the speech delivered at the 19th Party Congress (2017), just weeks after the end of an unprecedented stand-off between India and China on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan, Xi had dropped hints of what was to come as he mentioned “border areas” and “minorities” multiple times, promising to “accelerate development and improve defences and ensure stability and security.”
Later that year, the local CCP apparatus in Tibet launched the “xiaokang [moderately well off] villages” programme, under which 628 villages were to be developed along China’s frontier in Tibet, stretching from the Ngari Prefecture bordering Uttarakhand and Himachal to Nyingchi opposite Arunachal Pradesh.
Nearly four years after the programme was launched officially, a large number of these villages have been completed, some in Indian and Bhutanese territory.
Zhuoga, whose story served as the model for the launch of the border defence villages programme, has been awarded the July 1 Medal by Xi, ahead of the celebrations marking the 100th year of the founding of the Party. The July 1 Medal, established by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017 and given out for the first time on 29 June, is the highest honor in the Party.
At the award ceremony held at the Great Hall of the People ahead of the Party's centenary on July 1, Zhuoga was labeled a “border area guardian”.
Her village, Yumai, has more than 200 residents in 67 families now.
“The per capita net income of Yumai registered 34,012 yuan ($5,312) in 2020, 68 times that of 1991,” says a report in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
The border villages project has received consistent attention from the top echelons of the Party. In 2018, Che Dalha, the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, visited the Yumai village to take stock of the construction of the border village. In August 2020, only a few weeks after the clashes in the Galwan Valley, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi made a visit to border areas in Tibet to inspect “infrastructure building and the construction of villages”.
The CCP has made no secret of the construction of villages along the Himalayan frontier with India or the aim it wants to achieve with it.
“This is to implement … the central policies of improving support to border residents, stabilising and consolidating the border,” the Chinese plan says.
In 2018, Zhuang Yan, deputy secretary of the Party Committee of Tibet, said that the border villages were being developed to ensure ‘consolidation of border areas and border security’.
The new Chinese village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district, which recently made headlines, has been built under this programme. While the area where the village has come up is part of the Indian state of Arunachal, it has been under Chinese control since 1959.
The Chinese village of Pangda, which was in news last year, has come up 2.5 km inside Bhutan’s border near Doklam. It is also one of the 628 xiaokang villages.
The inhabitants of these villages, whom the Chinese Communist Party calls the “defenders of sacred land and constructors of happy homes”, will be additional eyes and ears for the PLA in the border areas.
To attract its loyalists, the CCP is investing in infrastructure. Around 30.1 billion yuan or nearly $4.6 billion were earmarked in 2017 for the construction of new homes and infrastructure for transport, energy and communication.
China’s border villages have sparked concerns in India. Arunachal Pradesh, in its annual budget earlier this year, announced that it will construct three model villages along the border with Tibet as a pilot project, for which Rs 30 crore have been allocated. The project, Arunachal Pradesh’s Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein said, will be expanded in the future to cover more villages.
In Uttarakhand alone, over 180 villages in the state’s three districts bordering China —Uttarkashi, Chamoli and Pithoragarh, have vanished. At least nine of these villages are located within an aerial distance of 5 km from the border.
The increasing number of uninhabited villages on the Indian side of the border may create more space for China to assert its expansive territorial claims.
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