China’s President Xi Jinping visited the Tibet Autonomous Region on July 21-22, according to the official Xinhua news agency, in his first recorded visit as leader of the nation and the first visit to Tibet by the country’s leader in three decades.
Xi’s visit comes at a time where China faces increased security tensions stemming from clashes with India and the withdrawal of US-led troops from Afghanistan.
Xi flew into the city of Nyingchi on Wednesday and took a train to Tibetan capital Lhasa the following day along a section of the high-elevation railway being built to link the mountainous border region with Sichuan province.
In Lhasa, Xi visited a monastery and the Potala Palace Square, and “inspected ethnic religion work” and Tibetan cultural heritage protection, according to Xinhua.
The palace is the traditional home of Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is in exile and has been branded a dangerous separatist by Beijing.
In Nyingchi, he also inspected rural rejuvenation and environmental protection.
Tibet has alternated over the centuries between independence and control by China, which says it “peacefully liberated” the rugged plateau in 1951 and brought infrastructure and education to the previously underdeveloped region.
But many exiled Tibetans accuse the central government of religious repression and eroding their culture.
On China’s border with India, Tibet is seen as having critical strategic importance to Beijing. Last year China and India saw the most serious clash in decades on their disputed border in the Himalayas, with deaths on both sides.
In footage released on Friday by state broadcaster CCTV, Xi was seen greeting a crowd wearing ethnic costumes and waving Chinese flags as he left his plane, in a red carpet welcome as dancers performed around him.
Although he arrived on Wednesday in the southeast of Tibet there was no mention of his visit in official media until two days later.
Photos released by Xinhua show Xi was accompanied by Zhang Youxia, a vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission and a senior general in the People’s Liberation Army.
Xi was last in Tibet in 2011, when he was vice president.
The last Chinese president to visit was Jiang Zemin in 1990.
Beijing sent troops into Tibet in 1950 in what it officially terms a peaceful liberation and maintains a heavy security presence in the region, which has been prone to unrest.
A violent clash in 2008 between Chinese police and Tibetan monks commemorating an anniversary of the 14th Dalai Lama exit from Tibet, left local authorities unsure for many years if a visiting Chinese leader would be welcomed or safe, said Yang Chaohui, professor of politics at Peking University.
The visit comes a year after a deadly skirmish between India and China in the disputed Galwan Valley, and Xi called on “people of all ethnicities to put down roots on the frontier and defend national territory.”
Tibet’s high altitude, which can take a toll on leaders not accustomed to the climate, is another reason why China’s top leaders rarely visit Tibet, he said.
Beijing sees development as an antidote to discontent in Tibet, where many still revere the Dalai Lama — the region’s exiled spiritual leader — and resent an influx of Chinese tourists and settlers.
Since 2008 China has poured investment into the region, making Tibet one of China’s fastest-growing regions economically, according to local statistics.