In Tibet, Party Cracks Down On Religion And Demands Gratitude

In Tibet, the Party is pushing a political education campaign to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the region’s annexation. This latest campaign comes amid a widespread “Sinicization” effort that critics claim has severely eroded Tibetan-language education and religious freedom. At Reuters, Martin Quin Pollard reported on life in Tibet amidst an effort to spur gratitude to the Party:

Asked who his spiritual leader was, a monk at Lhasa’s historic Jokhang temple named Xi.

“I’m not drunk … I speak freely to you,” said the monk named Lhakpa, speaking from a courtyard overlooked by security cameras and government observers.

The portraits of Xi were visible at almost all sites visited by Reuters during the trip to Tibet, where journalists are banned from entering outside of such tours. It was not clear when the posters and flags were put up.

[…] Reuters did not see any images of the Dalai Lama, previously common in homes throughout Tibet, on the trip from May 31 to June 5. [Source]

To mark the anniversary, China’s State Council Information Office published a white paper, “Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development and Prosperity,” that offered a revisionist history of the region’s relation to modern China: “Tibet has been an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times.” At The South China Morning Post, Catherine Wong reported on the Party’s full-throated embrace of the “Sinicization” of Tibetan history:

Tibet party secretary Wu Yingjie said on Saturday that the country must pursue further “Sinicisation of religion” and a stronger role for the party’s leadership in Tibet, a move analysts said was meant to reframe the region’s history and tighten Beijing’s grip on the area.

[…] The comments came a day after the party issued a report defining its official position on Tibet, claiming the area “has been an inseparable part of China since ancient times”, dating back to the seventh century.

[…] “To strengthen governance in Tibet in the new era, we need to strengthen efforts to Sinicise religion and reshape the historical narrative of Tibet. These are the changes made in the last few years. We did not stress these enough in the past,” Xie said.

[…] “This is hard to take seriously, since until 2015 the [party] and the Chinese government had insisted that Tibet only became part of China in the 13th century, and before that they had said it happened in the 17th or 18th centuries. China has yet to explain why it keeps changing its claims as to when it thinks Tibet became part of China,” [Robert Barnett said.] [Source]

Questions over the Dalai Lama’s succession loom in the background of the campaign. The Dalai Lama turns 86 in July and—in the event of his death—choosing his successor will be a contentious process. China claims the power to approve any future Lama reincarnations. In 1995, the Chinese government installed its own choice for the 11th Panchen Lama after seizing and disappearing the Dalai Lama-sanctioned reincarnation, a then six-year-old child. In 2020, the United States passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which mandates that the reincarnation process be decided solely by the Dalai Lama and Tibetan religious authorities and threatens any Chinese officials who interfere with sanctions. Security officials in India have reportedly discussed how to influence the selection themselves. The Dalai Lama himself has repeatedly questioned whether the institution should continue after his death and has warned that any successors appointed by the Chinese government would be illegitimate. The Economist published an explainer that laid out the process of reincarnation—and the temporal actors who seek to influence it:

In Tibetan Buddhism, each Dalai Lama is a tulku, a reincarnated custodian of the teachings of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva (enlightened being) of compassion. When a Dalai Lama dies, it normally takes years to identify his reincarnated form. Tenzin Gyatso was identified in 1937, four years after the 13th Dalai Lama died. Senior monks interpreted signs from the 13th’s death, such as an unusual star-shaped fungus that grew on his shrine apparently pointing to the north-east, to direct their search. Various clues and spiritual masters led them to two-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, then known as Lhamo Dhondup, who was the right age to be the reincarnated tulku. Young Tenzin correctly identified items belonging to the deceased Dalai Lama and on February 22nd 1940 was enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama.

[…] According to Chinese law the central government must approve the next Dalai Lama, or indeed of any other senior living Buddha. The atheist regime has long weighed in on matters of spiritual succession. On May 14th 1995, a six-year-old called Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was declared by the Dalai Lama to be the 11th Panchen Lama, the second-most senior monk in Tibetan Buddhism. Three days later he disappeared; he has not been seen in public since. The Chinese government named its own Panchen Lama, who is rejected by most Tibetans. The Dalai Lama has condemned Chinese efforts to appoint his successor as “brazen meddling”. He has even raised the possibility that he may be the last Dalai Lama.

But the dispute is not just between China and the Tibetans. Another option floated by the Dalai Lama is that his reincarnation may be identified outside Tibet, perhaps in India, where he fled to in 1959 after a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. [Source]

One of the chief aims of Penpa Tsering, the newly elected head of Tibet’s government-in-exile, the Central Tibetan Administration, is to restart talks with Beijing—stalled since 2010—to negotiate the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet. Prospects for success seem dim. A leading Chinese scholar of Tibet told Global Times, “the Chinese government currently will in no way build any connection with the ‘Tibetan government-in-exile.’” Penpa has been highly critical of what he terms China’s policy of “cultural genocide” in Tibet. At Reuters, Cate Cadell and Sanjeev Miglani reported on Penpa’s comments and the conflict over the Dalai Lama’s succession:

“Time is running out,” said Tsering, speaking from Dharamshala in India. “Once [Tibetan culture] is eliminated, it doesn’t make sense to fight for anything,” he said.

[…] Tsering reiterated that when the 14th Dalai Lama passes he will only be reincarnated in a “free country”, according to his wishes. China says it has a right to select the Dalai Lama’s successor according to Chinese law.

“Why are they so concerned with the 15th Dalai Lama?” said Tsering. “The 14th Dalai Lama is still living and he wishes to go to China … the Chinese government leaders need to learn about Buddhism first.” [Source]

Not all agree with the “cultural genocide” framing. In an essay for The Council on Foreign Relations, prominent Tibet expert Robert Barnett detailed abuses in the region—including the detention, humiliation, and torture of nuns—but argued that those abuses “are not similar in scale or duration to the systematic, mass practices of detention and cultural eradication in Xinjiang.” Barnett took particular issue with a Reuters report from September 2020 on coerced labor and a 2021 episode of The Little Red Podcast that used a since-replaced “click-bait” title comparing Tibet to Nazi Germany. In a response essay also published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Tenzin Dorjee argued that Barnett’s framing was flawed, pointing out that Tibet was ranked less free than North Korea by Freedom House’s annual freedom rankings:

[Barnett] insists Xi Jinping’s China is merely trying to “adapt popular understandings of Tibetan Buddhism,” not seeking to destroy it. He points out that “publications of traditional religious texts run into the thousands.” The quantity of scriptural publications, however, is a misleading metric of religious life, which is more meaningfully measured by variables such as monastic enrollment and graduation rates, the breadth and depth of the curriculum, and the doctrinal and liturgical knowledge of the Sangha, etc.

In reality, Chinese authorities strictly control and suppress monastic enrollment in Tibet, forbidding anyone below eighteen to join the cloister. Tibetan children in Lhasa, for instance, are banned from visiting the Jhokhang temple or the Potala Palace –– such bans on religious activity often do not exist on paper and are easily missed by scholars relying purely on documentary evidence. Photos of the Dalai Lama have long been banned in monasteries and homes, but now Chinese authorities are seeking to expunge him altogether from Tibetan Buddhism, which goes far beyond merely “insulting the Dalai Lama.” (To understand what Tibetan Buddhism without the Dalai Lama might actually mean, imagine the Catholic Church without the Pope.) Whereas once the monastery used to be a liminal space relatively impervious to the state, now it is a panopticon filled with surveillance cameras watching the monastics at all times. Instead of spending their day studying the scriptures, monks and nuns are forced to attend political indoctrination programs and immerse themselves in Xi Jinping thought, which can hardly be called a “popular adaptation” of what the Buddha taught.

Even more pernicious than Beijing’s attack on Buddhism is its assault on the Tibetan language, a campaign that bears all the hallmarks of a multigenerational project to render a language dead and thus eliminate a people’s identity. In a report published by Human Rights Watch, Tibetan sources on the ground describe how China’s new education policy, deceptively labeled “bilingual education,” has been replacing Tibetan with Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction not only in primary schools but in kindergartens across the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). What Beijing calls “bilingual education” is more accurately described by the International Tibet Network as a “cradle to grave” education system, where “new methods of ‘controlling minds’ have been imposed from an early age, with Tibetan toddlers increasingly being subjected to ideological education in hundreds of new and expanded kindergartens across Tibet.” [Source]

China’s policy of cultural assimilation has been accompanied by projects geared towards economic integration. From The Economist, a look at Tibet’s newest rail line—and its political implications:

But the new line is only part of what China calls the “project of the century”. This involves building Tibet’s second rail link with China’s interior at a total cost that state media say could be about ten times that of the Lhasa-Nyingchi stretch, with even greater engineering challenges yet to come. The section about to open was no pushover. Tunnels comprise nearly half of its length. Workers had to brave landslides, poisonous gas from broken rock, intense cold as well as an oxygen-starved atmosphere at more than 5,000 metres above sea level—roughly the altitude of Mount Everest’s base camps. When completed in 2030, the railway will connect Lhasa with Chengdu, the capital of neighbouring Sichuan province. At a maximum speed of 160kph, the journey will take just 12 hours, a third of the time now required by road.

To the party, it appears no expense is too great in its campaign to integrate the vast, isolated region more closely with the interior. The first rail link, which opened in 2006, was also an engineering feat. Long lengths of that line from Qinghai province had to be laid over permafrost, using high-tech means to prevent temperature fluctuations from damaging the track.

The most obvious impact has been on tourism. In 2005 Tibet received fewer than 2m visits by tourists. By 2018 the number had soared to 33m trips (only 0.7% of them by foreigners). The government is aiming for 61m by 2025—about 17 times the number of Tibet’s inhabitants. Some Tibetans worry their culture is being swamped. An influx of Han Chinese migrants, including shopkeepers and others cashing in on the tourism boom, may have fuelled ethnic tensions that caused an explosion of unrest in Lhasa and elsewhere across the Tibet plateau in 2008. Since then the government has clamped down even harder on dissent in the region. [Source]

For more on Tibet, read Howard French’s review of Barbara Demick’s new bookEat The Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town” and Robert Barnett and Susan Chen’s interview with Tsering Woeser about her new book “Forbidden Memory: Tibet During the Cultural Revolution.”


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