Tibetan monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists told to integrate China's core socialist values into their religious practices
Tibetan monks attend the Beating Ghost festival at the Yonghe Temple, also known as the Lama Temple, in Beijing on Feb. 25. (Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP)
Published Sept. 27, 2017
While extremism and separatism are fears that the Chinese government often stokes in the country's west and the Muslim-minority Xinjiang province, the State Council has passed new laws to tighten restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.
On Sept. 7, the government legislated that monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists integrate China's core socialist values into their religious practices, while also mandating that their religious worship become more Chinese. This nationalization includes cutting off foreign donors and isolating Tibetan religious practitioners from any counterparts outside of China.
"In the focus on the eradication of 'foreign' influence, there is no doubt too that the intention is to ensure Tibetans in Tibet are separated from the teachings and presence of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, isolating them still further," Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said in a statement.
Imposing religious restrictions in southwest China, the cradle of Tibetan Buddhism, is nothing new. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for broad policies during his speech on religion that would tighten the government's management of religion, nationalizing religious doctrine, and emphasizing national security to limit foreign influence on religion.
These new laws do, however, allow the government a clear and codified way to crack down on apparently unwanted forms of religion, and eliminates former gray areas by creating more detail on how religious practices need to be carried out by practitioners — in order to be considered legal.
"There are new requirements saying people cannot attend or organize others to attend 'unauthorized' religious 'events and conferences' abroad. There's also greater attention to financial matters, including stricter oversight over foreign donations. Another new development is to include religious schools in the regulatory framework," Maya Wang, Senior Researcher, Asia Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told ucanews.com.
Cutting off this access to foreign money and practitioners is a key aim of the law. The Dalai Lama is exiled from China and the religious leader, along with many organizations, coordinates and sustains the religion from outside China. The Chinese government, instead, more often systematically suppresses Tibetan Buddhism. For instance, Larung Gar — China's largest Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Sichuan province — is being continually demolished.
"These revised regulations may have the greatest effect on how religious practitioners use the Internet, since it gives the authorities almost complete discretion in determining what content complies with the regulations," William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, told ucanews.com.
Tibetan Buddhists have also seen further restrictions because of a new Internet law that limits "group information" beginning on Oct. 8. Because many Tibetan Buddhists share information via the popular messaging application WeChat, and restrictions are in fact already taking place, communication between one another — whether within or outside of China — is becoming limited.
The new law's language is not dissimilar to the legal codes the Chinese government uses to crack down on Muslim religious practices in Xinjiang. In the western province, the government addresses fears of religious extremism — and potential separatism — with a cache of alleged gross human rights abuses that limit, or even contradict, the practice of Islam.
Such alleged abuses have included installing Party cadres in Muslim homes to prevent fasting and praying, forcing Muslims to collectively watch communist films on Fridays — which is typically reserved for prayer at the mosque — and play highly active sports despite fasting.
Nee said there are now numerous reports across Xinjiang of "political education centers" in which ethnic minorities, namely Uyghurs, are being arbitrarily detained and subjected to political brainwashing. There are also many cases of people receiving harsh sentences for practicing Islam, amid an anti-Islamic policy drive.
With the new law directed at Tibetan Buddhism, "There are some differences in details, such as greater emphasis on prohibiting the use of religion to spread 'extremism' and 'splittism.' These are problematic and vaguely-worded concepts that also include peaceful expressions," said Wang.
The government also perceives there to be this type of religious extremism in Tibet, especially because of instances of self-immolation and religious iconography of the Dalai Lama. Last year, the Chinese government passed a sweeping counter-terror law that promulgated further powers of the local police force and allowed for local government officials to take either more punitive or restrictive measures against certain individuals.
The language in the new religious law is left purposely vague — and this is not unusual. Chinese authorities are increasingly using opaque terms not only in media but also in legislation so to enable the Chinese government to more easily single out contraventions according to political imperatives.
In Driru (Biru), in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), a so-called "rectification drive," for example, said that monasteries that were "illegal" would be destroyed and any Tibetans who kept images of the Dalai Lama would be punished.
In Tibetan areas within China, particularly in the TAR, officials have long implemented policing and administrative systems aimed at preventing, controlling, or punishing social dissent and disorder, according to rights groups.
Following protests in support of the Dalai Lama in Tibet in 2008, Party leaders commissioned researchers to develop new methods to prevent future unrest.
HRW said this led to the introduction, from 2011, of new administrative and security mechanisms in the TAR, including cadres installed as managers in every monastery and religious institution and grid system offices set up to monitor each block or group of homes in towns and villages.
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