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Is Xi losing sleep over the Buddha?

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, why is China is more concerned about Sinicizing Tibetan Buddhism?

(Kalsang Damdul illustration)

(Kalsang Damdul illustration)

Amid all the upheaval the world is currently experiencing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China is more concerned about Sinicizing Buddhism — Tibetan Buddhism to be exact.

“Tibetan Buddhism should be guided in adapting to [China’s] socialist society and developed in the Chinese context,” said Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) at the 7th Central Symposium on Tibet Work held in Beijing in August. This kind of statement is not new.

In a 1999 speech to ethnic and religious leaders at the Ninth Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, former Chairman Jiang Zemin (江澤民) listed “actively guiding religions to adapt to the socialist society" as one of the ways to handle religious problems. However, the fact that Xi is compelled to specifically address Tibetan Buddhism seven decades after the formation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and 60 years since the illegal occupation of Tibet is an admission of a failure to obliterate Tibetan Buddhism from the social fabric.

Just a year ago, at the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Xi said, "No force can stop the Chinese people and nation from marching forward," but on the 71st anniversary, much has changed in the world and there are forces, internal and external, that could stop the forward march. Is Buddhism one of them?

Xi’s consolidation of power and amendments to the constitution to make him the president for life have made him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong (毛澤東), for whom religion was anathema in his dream of a socialist China. It may be recalled that Mao, in his 1954 meeting with a 19-year-old Dalai Lama said: "Religion is poison as it undermines race and retards the progress of the country. Tibet and Mongolia have been poisoned by it.”

Years later, in 1993, Jiang said the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will not allow religion to be used to confront the leadership of the party and the socialist system. It is both ironic and remarkable that in 2011, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, diminished his political power as head of the centuries-old Gadhen Phodrang government in pursuit of his dream of a democratic Tibet.

In his book "God Is Not Great," the late Christopher Hitchens, English intellectual and poster boy of atheism, noted that the Dalai Lama calls himself a hereditary ruler appointed by heaven itself. “His one-man rule in an Indian enclave is absolute.” The transition of power to democratic leadership in May 2011, a few months before Hitchens passed away, should have helped him contextualize his earlier observation.

And there is the CCP, who despite its founding father’s condemnation of religion, is set to embrace and manipulate it as a tool of state control, along the lines of “If you can't join ‘em, beat ‘em.”

The party’s nervousness about the growing clout of Tibetan Buddhism in the world and within China is reflected in the CCP's recent actions. In 2007, the State Religious Affairs Bureau’s Order No. 5 issued a decree requiring the reincarnation of Tibetan Lamas to be approved by the communist government.

The order was seen as a move to preside over His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation someday in a similar fashion as when they kidnapped and replaced the reincarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama with a Chinese puppet. The CCP has been asserting its right to recognize the future Dalai Lama, a thoroughly bizarre claim that has been duly slammed by all.

The Tibetan administration in exile has passed resolutions entitling only Tibetans to carry out the traditional practice. The U.S. Congress has echoed the sentiments of Tibet and sent a clear message to China. Reincarnation is uniquely Tibetan and no other culture, least of all that of an occupying atheist nation, could ever preside over it with any trace of legitimacy.

The CCP, in a major display of insensitivity towards Tibetan Buddhism practitioners, had the Serta County government in Eastern Tibet issue an order in June 2016 stating that the number of residents at Larung Gar, the largest concentration of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, had to be reduced to 5,000 people by October 2017. It is clear that the CCP feels threatened by Tibetan Buddhism and wants to sully it by coming down strongly on any significant community of practitioners.

But just a month after the decree, demolition started and went on for months. Thousands of huts were destroyed and monks and nuns were evicted and sent to patriotic "re-education centers." Some took their own lives, saying they couldn’t bear the pain of the endless Chinese harassment of the innocent Buddhists who quietly studied at the institute."

The 2018 International Religious Freedom report categorized China as a country of particular concern regarding severe religious freedom violations, along with the likes of North Korea and Syria. The report highlighted the atrocities committed in the extended eviction of monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar.

Since its forceful settlement of Tibet, the CCP has left no stone unturned in its persecution of religion, especially Tibetan Buddhism. Employing its state machinery, it has executed campaign after campaign to meet its objective, each more brutal and oppressive than the last.

The Tibetan government in exile's oft-repeated account of China’s political repression, economic marginalization, cultural assimilation, and environmental destruction hardly begins to encompass what goes on. Cultural assimilation is too soft a term for the religious persecution and cultural genocide that has taken place in Tibet since the mid-20th century.

Chairman Mao acted on his beliefs and ruled Tibet with a heavy hand. By the time Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which saw Red Guards attack the “four olds” — customs, culture, habits, and ideas — the majority of Tibetan monasteries, places of worship, religious structures, and systems were uprooted, with many ancient artifacts plundered and taken to China during the intervening period.

The 10th Panchen Rinpoche’s 70,000-character petition is a testament to that period. He stated in the petition that after the upheaval, the number of monks and nuns was reduced by 93 percent, greatly affecting the ancient Tibetan tradition of contemplative Buddhism. It is hard to articulate the real scale of destruction in Tibet.

With the thousands of demolished monasteries went the carefully and laboriously compiled volumes of original Buddhist scriptures from India, artifacts, history, and people’s spiritual succor. It is no wonder, then, that the Tibetan resistance army formed in eastern Tibet renamed itself the Voluntary Dharma Protecting army when united with others from across Tibet on a mission to guide His Holiness the Dalai Lama to safety in exile.

Today, Tibetans are relegated to being second-class citizens in Tibet unless they toe the party line and disown Tibet’s sovereign history in favor of uniting with the Chinese motherland, a foreign and unpalatable concept for Tibetans. At the symposium in August, Xi also called for the strengthening of the Tibetan borders with Bhutan, India, and Nepal. “It is necessary to strengthen the education and guidance of the masses, extensively mobilize the masses to participate in the struggle against separatism, and form copper and iron walls to maintaining stability,” he said.

It is vividly clear that Tibet is a pressure point and always has been. It is a base from which China's expansionist design that the world has just begun to see in its entirety.

It is because of the illegal occupation of Tibet in 1959 that we have the Sino-Indian standoff today. It is China’s exploitation of natural resources in Tibet that aided its astronomical economic growth, which in turn bought it the impunity with which it has committed crimes against Tibet and the Tibetan way of life.

Today, with the world at a standstill because of China’s casual handling of the virus outbreak and its tradition of according little to no value to human life, with India being double-crossed once again on the border, and with the CCP still using global power dynamics and Buddhism as vehicles for its soft power, it is incumbent upon the world to correct the course of China’s relentless expansionism.

Tenzin Sangmo is a Delhi-based Tibetan journalist and a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She covers human rights and conflict resolution issues.