In the wake of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent speech declaring that “religious groups … must adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party of China“, an extensive new report by Free Tibet‘s research partner Tibet Watch finds Tibet’s monasteries to be at the epicentre of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule. Tibet’s “intolerable” monasteries details how monasteries have become the sole institutions inside Tibet with genuine legitimacy for the Tibetan people and have evolved from centres of local communities into centres of local resistance. The report’s title derives from a classification given to Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery in 2010 by regional authorities – “number one intolerable monastery.”
Tibet’s “intolerable” monasteries reviews the pivotal role monasteries have taken historically in Tibetan communities as centres of learning, political activity and even commerce. It examines in depth two of Tibet’s most politically-active monasteries, Labrang Monastery and Kirti Monastery, as well as other religious institutions targeted by the Chinese state. Combining comprehensive accounts of protest, political activity and the state’s response with new and extensive testimony from Tibetan monks and nuns, it provides vital context for understanding the current state of religious freedom in Tibet.
According to the report, since its 1950 invasion of Tibet, China has seen monasteries as both a political and ideological threat. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s saw wholesale destruction of monasteries and persecution of monastic communities. The gradual rehabilitation of religion after the death of Mao did not, however, find religious institutions compliant or cowed, with many monasteries taking roles at the center of protest and resistance ever since. Monks and nuns were organizers of or key figures in the uprisings of the late 1980s and 2008 and make up almost half of the 143 Tibetans confirmed to have self-immolated since 2009 – including the first six protesters and one of two to have set themselves alight in 2016. Monks and nuns have been targets for surveillance, harassment and persecution as a result. Last year, the leader of the Communist Party in the Tibet Autonomous Region expressed the government’s position on religious institutions in Tibet in more euphemistic terms than Xi Jinping, saying monks and nuns should “have a personal feeling of the party and government’s care and warmth” and behave in a “patriotic and law-abiding” manner.
In addition to its grassroots repression, China has recently been robustly asserting its right to control Tibetan Buddhism at the very highest level, by selecting the next Dalai Lama in defiance of the unequivocal position of the current Dalai Lama. Even though the role is filled by identifying the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama after his death, China’s atheist regime lays claim to the approval of all Tibetan reincarnated lamas. It maintains Beijing has assumed control of the appointment of the Dalai Lama throughout history and has described the current Dalai Lama’s position as “blasphemy” and a “betrayal.” Tibet’s “intolerable” monasteries details the deep loyalty of Tibetan religious institutions to the Dalai Lama and their resistance by all attempts by the Chinese state to subvert or undermine the authority of the institution.
According to the report:
Since the invasion, China has adopted different approaches towards Tibetan Buddhism and the influence of religious institutions. It has tried to control religious activity through the imposition of ‘work teams’, surveillance cameras within monastery grounds, dedicated police stations, frequent inspections and numerous arbitrary regulations. It has tried to co-opt Tibetan Buddhism for its own purposes by interfering in reincarnation processes or turning monasteries and pilgrimage sites into tourist attractions. It has tried to buy the loyalty of institutions through gifts, donations or favorable treatment. It has also tried intimidation – the presence of security forces at prayer festivals and other religious gatherings has become a common sight.
China perceives, and treats, acts of religious devotion as political protests. Loyalty to the Dalai Lama is almost equated with treason and expressions of Tibetan culture and identity are branded as ‘splittism’ and sometimes even criminalized. Buddhism in Tibet is an integral part of the social fabric and the day-to-day lives of lay people as well as monks and nuns. Attacks and restrictions on Buddhism in Tibet are, therefore, not peripheral issues; they are attacks on the Tibetan people, culture and way of life.
Tibet Watch and Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren says:
“Although the repression of religion in Tibet is well known, unless you understand the context and role of religious institutions in Tibetan society, it’s impossible to understand exactly what that means. We’re pleased to have been able to give the current status of Tibet’s monasteries the in-depth analysis it deserves.
“Despite Xi Jinping’s recent call for Communist Party members to be ‘unyielding Marxist atheists’, China knows that it would be a political disaster within Tibet to wipe out monasteries. Instead it’s trying to neuter them through a process of intrusive control, persecution of monks and nuns, propaganda and social and economic marginalization. As Tibet’s “intolerable” monasteries clearly shows, however, monastic institutions in Tibet have deep roots and strong trunks. They are robust and adaptable enough to maintain their central roles in Tibetan society. More than that, they are the beating heart of Tibetan resistance.
“Religious institutions and religious freedom remain under intense pressure in Tibet today. In coming months, Free Tibet will be building on Tibet Watch‘s report by campaigning to expose and address China’s grip on religion. Few things could exemplify more starkly the injustice of China’s occupation.”