(The portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong hangs behind red flags, raised during the sitting of parliament, and the Chinese national flag (R) in Beijing's Tiananmen Square March 3, 2008/David Gray)

The hardline Chinese official removed last week as Communist Party chief of restive Tibet has been made head of the province in the centre of contention over China’s Catholics, giving him an influential role in another sensitive religious issue. Zhang Qingli, who gained a reputation as an unyielding Communist Party secretary of heavily Buddhist Tibet, has been appointed party secretary of Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing, the Xinhua news agency reported late on Sunday.

Hebei, with a population of 70 million, is home to roughly a quarter of China’s 8-12 million Roman Catholics.

Zhang, 60, was known for his tough stance against Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama, a man reviled by China as a separatist. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk denies advocating either violence or Tibetan independence. Zhang was in charge of Tibet in 2008 when protests in the regional capital Lhasa gave way to deadly riots that rippled across other ethnic Tibetan areas. After the protests, he rained insults on the Dalai Lama, calling him a “jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes.”

Zhang’s new post will give him an influential role in China’s relationship with the Vatican, which is in dispute with Beijing over control of church affairs, especially appointing bishops.