Going Undercover, Evangelists Taking Jesus to Tibet

At The Guardian, Jonathan Kaiman examines the activities of Christian missionaries in Tibet. These have prompted widespread distrust among the overwhelmingly Buddhist population, but appear to be tacitly accepted by the authorities.

More than 10 people interviewed for this article said that Chinese authorities in Tibetan areas were selectively tolerant of missionaries for reasons that range from pragmatic to borderline sinister. One is that they are a boon to local economies – they open lucrative businesses and teach at local schools for next to nothing, supplementing their meagre salaries with donations from home. Authorities may also consider missionaries politically trustworthy, reluctant to undermine their spiritual missions by openly criticising regional policies.

And lastly, the government may welcome them as a powerful counterforce to Tibetan Buddhism, with its electrifying political overtones.

[…] Most missionaries in Tibet belong to nondenominational organisations which believe that Jesus Christ will return to the earth only when people from every social, cultural and linguistic group have been exposed to his teachings. These groups view mass conversion as a high form of ecclesiastical service, and as such, their tactics can be covert and transactional. Some lure young Tibetans with the promise of English lessons or professional training and coax them into conversion after making sure of their loyalty. Various Tibetans in Xining expressed disgust with this tactic. One likened it to bribery.

[…] According to [Columbia University’s Robert] Barnett, Tibetan distrust of missionaries is shorthand for a much broader context – “where the whole structure of Tibetan ideas, beliefs, and cultural values is being radically undermined, year after year, by the Chinese project, by modernity and globalisation in general”.

Another vulnerable aspect of Tibetan culture is its language, particularly as expressed in place names. A group of pro-Tibetan organizations in the West is attempting to preserve these names by campaigning for their inclusion in Google Maps.

While some officials may believe that missionaries would not jeopardize their religious work with political meddling, others seem unconvinced. A set of instructions on how to deal with foreign proselytizing, leaked in December, urged “forceful measures” to prevent missionaries from “westernizing and dividing China.”