Two months ago, China put the Tibetan people to a test. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) demanded that all Buddhist monasteries in Tibet display the Chinese flag to show patriotism and obedience to Chinese law. Chen Quango, the Chinese Communist chief in Tibet, stated that Buddhist monasteries must also be equipped with communication services, newspapers, bookstores, and television, in order for the monks and nuns to know the true teachings of the Chinese government. According to the Communist Party’s own propaganda outlet, People’s Daily, the party will also offer pensions and medical insurance, as well as free health check-ups for Tibetans to “experience the care and warmth of the Party and the government.”
This attempt to adapt Tibetan Buddhism to Chinese socialism is part of a greater re-education campaign. Though for decades China has told the world that Tibet enjoys autonomy and religious freedom, the Chinese Communist Party is turning Buddhist monasteries into “patriotic centers” and re-education camps to maintain social stability and control in Tibet.
After winning its independence from China in 1914, Tibet enjoyed a period of peace. However, even by 1932 the 13th Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso, was warning about “the red ideology” and the threat it posed to an independent Tibet: if communism, which Gyatso called a “degeneration,” took root in Tibet,
“the [Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama] will be eliminated without a trace of their names remaining; the properties of the incarnate lamas and of the monasteries along with the endowments for religious services will all be seized. Moreover, our political system … will be reduced to an empty name; my officials, deprived of their patrimony and property, will be subjugated like slaves by the enemy; and my people, subjected to fear and miseries, will be unable to endure day or night.”
The communist threat from China was so serious that the nonviolent Lama called for the deployment of “efficient and well-equipped troops” to man the frontiers against any possible encroachments. Nevertheless, in 1951 China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, following the Chinese Civil War. China claimed that Tibet had been part of their territory for more than seven centuries, and thus believed that it was their duty to “liberate” Tibet and restore the region to Chinese rule. In service to Chinese nationalism and in order to extend communist rule, the CCP forced the Tibetan government to sign the Seventeen Point Agreement recognizing China’s rule as the “Motherland” of Tibet.
This agreement states that Tibetans are considered Chinese nationals and are to be treated as equals. Point Four of the agreement states that the Tibetan people have the right to exercise regional autonomy. Point Five claims that the Central Authorities of the Party will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. And Point Seven states that the freedom of religious beliefs will be protected.
However, since the plan was agreed to, China has systematically and repeatedly violated the terms of its obligations. China has ruled Tibet with an iron fist since its troops “peacefully liberated” the region. It is as if the agreement does not even exist. Tibet does not exercise regional autonomy. The independent political system has been eliminated, and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India in 1959 and establish a government in exile—the Central Tibetan Administration.
China has not recognized Tibet’s religious freedom. Between 1959 and 1961 the Communist Party destroyed more than 6,000 Buddhist temples. Monastic estates were broken up and secular education was introduced. By 1976 only eight temples remained and by 1998 thousands of monks had been expelled. Also, references to and images of the Dalai Lama are illegal, and refusal to denounce the Lama results in imprisonment or other forms of punishment.
China sees Tibetan religion and practices as a threat to the Communist Party. The Chinese People’s Armed Police troops have “repeatedly opened fire on unarmed protests calling for religious freedom” over the past years. When faced with ideological dissent, China has responded with crackdowns and violence. In 2008, the Chinese led a massive attack on Buddhist demonstrators protesting against communist control in central Lhasa. Chinese paramilitary used battle-strength firepower to end the protests, killing more than 100 people, and arresting over 500. Only last year, Chinese police opened fire on Tibetan demonstrators, wounding more than ten people.
The Communist Party’s influence in Tibet even extends into the afterlife. Traditionally, after the Dalai Lama dies, a party of senior monks has to locate his new reincarnation in a young boy, who goes on to be trained as a monk and leader. Recently, the chairman of the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Regional People’s Congress explained, “the power to determine the future location and durability of the Dalai Lama’s spirit resides with the Communist Party in Beijing.” The oddity of an atheist communist party declaring how and when a Buddhist spiritual leader is be reincarnated is just the strangest piece of evidence of the near-total scope of China’s designs upon Tibetan life.
Tibetans who report Chinese oppression to the outside world face great risks. The government keeps the Tibetan people under close surveillance, and anyone who shares information about human rights abuses in Tibet is subject to disappearance, torture, or imprisonment under pretext of violating China’s “state secrets” law.
Many Tibetans are so desperate for change, and left so powerless by the pervasive system of censorship and political control, that they resort to self-immolation. In a sign of its characteristic harshness, the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to prevent news of these self-immolations from spreading, even by bringing charges against those who witness an immolation.
China’s crackdown on Tibet has made the region one of the most repressed societies in the world. According to Freedom House, which every year ranks countries across the world based on their political rights and civil liberties, Tibet is classified as plainly “Not Free,” and even earned the distinction of being among the “worst of the worst” in 2015. Tibet scored the lowest score possible in both the strength of its civil liberties and the health of its political rights.
The Central Tibetan Administration claims that around 1.2 million Tibetans have died of starvation, violence, and other forms of oppression by the Chinese Communist Party since 1950. China is pioneering an authoritarian model of repressive suzerainty with weak civil order that other imperial powers could follow—such as the Russian regime appears to be attempting to do in Eastern Ukraine.
This ongoing battle between the Chinese regime and Tibet has resulted in the loss of Tibet’s national independence, culture, religion, and human rights; these failures reflect the way in which China treats its autonomous regions generally, including Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Guangxi. But no matter how innocent China wants to make its stewardship of these regions appear, it is using both hard and soft power to reshape and repress the existing culture and political life in those place, replacing it with a Beijing-approved version of communist secularism.
It is clear, as the Dalai Lama said in a 1959 press conference, “The ultimate Chinese aim with regard to Tibet, as far as I can make out, seems to attempt the extermination of religion and culture and even the absorption of the Tibetan race.”