According to PB Potter, the relationship between religion and state power in China has long been contested because religion was a significant source of resistance against authorities in the Imperial period and perceived as a potential source of threat to the present regime in China. The foreseeable threat that the Chinese leadership anticipates is not only because most of the ‘ethnic minorities’ in China are deeply devoted to their religions, but more importantly because their devotion and loyalty towards their religion unites and define them. The CCP has issues with minorities and their religion because they do not prioritize their loyalty towards the Party over their faith in their religion.
As a result, with Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012, measures to control religious practices of Tibetan Buddhists and policies adopted to intervene in spiritual communities have massively increased as new measures of repression and control over the practice of Tibetan Buddhism have intensified.
Besides harsher punishments, cancelation of celebrations of Buddhist festivals and increasing surveillance in Tibetan monasteries, the Party has introduced new ways to influence and interfere in the selection of monks and nuns, a process and a practice that is a core religious tenet for many believers. There are state sponsored events to highlight the importance of upholding party’s national religious policies. For instance, on June 18, officials attended the opening ceremony of an Exhibition on Tibetan Buddhism from the United Front Work, Propoganda Department, Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee and research institutes. The purpose behind the exhibition as explained by Feng Zhi, Deputy Director and researcher of the Institute of History, China Tibetology Research Center, was to enable people to understand the reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism in a more “comprehensive, three-dimensional, and true way”.
A similar exhibition was launched in Shannan city (Lhoka) on May 8. Evidently, the official head of the United Front Work Department sought to explain the rationale behind celebrating the opening of the exhibition. He stated that it was aimed to promote the party’s national religious policy such as the Religious Affairs Regulations and Tibet Buddhist Living Buddha Reincarnation Management Measures. He also mentioned that the exhibitions’ purpose was to enhance and adapt Tibetan Buddhism with socialism and cultivate patriotism, constantly strengthen the ideological importance and contribute to long-term peace and stability.
The Seventh Tibet Work Forum, which for convened in Beijing from August 28 to 29 by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), called for the action under national unity and securing China’s borders.
These measures are designed by the government to govern Tibet under the Xi Jinping era who issued a similar guideline in 2018 which demanded religious personnel in Tibet to uphold the “Four Standards” to make them patriotic, party loving, law-abiding and influential. The ‘Four Standards’ policy was introduced in TAR in 2018 where Tibetan monks and nuns are required to act as propagandists for the government and Communist Party.
From Deng Xiaoping to the present leadership under Xi Jinping, religion in China has been treated as part of a nationalist path that should contribute to the Party’s policy and China’s economic growth rather than treating religious freedom as an individual freedom of choice. In fact, Tibet is among the heaviest guarded region in China where people are deeply religious and devotees of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader, revered by Tibetans inside Tibet and outside who have been often deemed separatist by the Chinese government.
According to Tibet Daily, a new regulation was passed by the Tibet People’s Congress in February 2020, requiring all levels of government, companies, community organisations, villages, schools, military groups and religious activity centres be responsible for work on ethnic unity, similar to the law introduced in Xinjiang four years earlier. The Global Times stated that it was the common responsibility for the people of all ethnic groups to safeguard national reunification, strengthen ethnic unity and take a clear-cut stand against separatism. The Chinese government’s obsession over national unity and social stability especially in the ethnic minority areas is quite evident in this new regulation.
In a recent turn of events, Tibetan students are barred from participating in any form of religious activity during their winter break. The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) noted that a December 31, 2019 directive sent by Lhasa Chengguan Haicheng Elementary School contained guidelines on winter break school tasks and projects, healthcare and forbidden behavior, including religious activities. This is clearly a violation against the principle of religious freedom stipulated in the constitution of PRC.
However the constitution also states that the religious freedom stipulated in the constitution entails certain obligations and prohibit acts such as engaging in activities endangering national security, disturbing public order and any kind of crimes in the name of religion. The constitution, the new initiatives and the policies are directed towards the regulation of religion, which are enforced through law, and administrative regulations. The Politburo Standing Committee member, the Politburo member in charge of propaganda, the Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), the State’s Council’s Religious Affairs Bureau, Public Security departments have all been distributed with responsibility to enforce regulations controlling religious activities or supervise over religious ceremonies.
Under the policies for Sinicizing religion, the Chinese government have compelled the monks and nuns to demonstrate “political reliability”, moral integrity capable of impressing the public”, and willingness to play an active role at critical moments” apart from demonstrating competence in Buddhist studies.
It was also reported that in recent years, the Tibet Autonomous Region had adopted a policy of benefiting monks and nuns. The monks and nuns in the region enjoyed medical insurance, old-age insurance, personal accident insurance, minimum living guarantee and free medical examination, provided they supported the Party Central Committee, shared the same ideology and followed the directives of the Party. The ultimate purpose behind these measures remains the maintenance of what the Party deems as “national unity, and to actively guide religion to adapt to ‘Chinese Socialist Society’.
The Human Rights Watch states that all of these measures are an attempt to forestall or stop any protest against the state policy. Intrusive official presence in monasteries, pervasive surveillance, routine reeducation campaigns, limits on travel and communications, and regulations discouraging religiosity among government employees and university students affect most monastics and many lay believers. The Chinese Communist Party uses these policies under the guise of public safety and interest to increase religious repression and control.
(Tenzin Lhadon is a research fellow in Tibet Policy Institute)