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Abuse of Religious Freedoms in Tibet

Visitors to Tibet often remark on the apparent freedom of religious practice. Prayer Flags flutter on the tops of buildings and every home has an altar. But despite the apparent signs of religious freedom, the Chinese Communist Party remains fundamentally hostile to religion. While Chinese leaders have spoken of a "freedom to believe" policy in Tibet, the Communist Party has spoken of "too much religious activity in the area" and wants to curb the numbers entering the monasteries.

Chinese Policy

Underlying Chinese Communist Party policy on religion is a commitment to the "natural withering away" of religion. The guidelines 'Concerning our Country's Basic Standpoint and Policy on Religious Questions' (1982) set out a "magnificent goal" for Party members: "an era when all the various religious expressions of the actual world finally disappear". The practice of religion in Tibet is subject to strict controls within carefully prescribed limits (Defying the Dragon, Lawasia & Tibet Information Network TIN, March 1991). It is these controls, promoted in two principal ways, which are destroying the richness of Tibetan Buddhism, an integral part of Tibetan society.

The Chinese authorities have attempted to destroy the relationship between monasteries and the community-a relationship which is central to Tibetan society. The ideas of religion and nationhood are so connected that an erosion of Buddhism leads to an erosion of the Tibetans' sense of identity. Although some rites of Tibetan Buddhism are tolerated, the philosophical foundation, formerly taught in monastic universities, is also under threat. There are severe restrictions on teaching and conducting initiations-both of which are vital for public access to religion.

Chinese policy on religion in Tibet over the last 30 years can be divided into five periods:

  • 1950-59: Religion was officially endorsed in the 1954 Constitution, but religious activity was strictly controlled through state-run associations.
  • 1959-66: China consolidated its hold on Tibet - monasteries were targeted as the backbone of Tibetan society. By 1966, before the Cultural Revolution began, 80% of central Tibet's 2,700 monasteries had been destroyed. Of the original 115,600 monks and 1,600 "living buddhas", only 6,900 monks and nuns remained (TAR Vice-Chairman Buchung Tsering, 1987). In 1960, the International Commission of Jurists found that: "acts of genocide had been committed in Tibet in an attempt to destroy the Tibetans as a religious group."
  • 1966-77: During the Cultural Revolution, all religious activity was banned; religious institutions were razed; texts and sacred objects destroyed; monks and nuns imprisoned and tortured; many were killed. By 1978, only eight monasteries were left standing, and 970 monks and nuns remained in the TAR.
  • 1977-86: In 1977, some religious activities were allowed. The Panchen Lama was released from detention in 1978 and in 1979 the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was opened. Liberalisation policies were initiated by Hu Yaobang in 1980. Money was allocated for rebuilding monasteries, and in 1986 the Monlam prayer festival was celebrated for the first time in 20 years. The period between 1983 and 1987 was one of rapid growth for monasteries and nunneries. Many were able to increase their size with little government interference. Garu Nunnery, for example, increased from 20 nuns in 1985 to about 130 by 1987.

    The Institute for Studying Buddhism at Nechung was opened by the authorities in the early-1980s, but it is reported that there is a shortage of teachers, teaching is sub-standard and selection involves political screening.

  • 1987-present: Demonstrations in 1987 resulted in a security crackdown on major monasteries. About half a dozen monks were expelled from major monasteries in the Lhasa region in October 1988 and more than 200 monks and nuns were expelled between December 1989 and April 1990. Unrest has been attributed by Party hardliners to laxity towards religious activities (Tibet Daily, 07/08/89), and what is being witnessed now is a conservative backlash from the Chinese authorities.

    The TAR Communist Party announced in November 1994 that it would "fix the number of monks and nuns in the monasteries" and seek to control the administration "especially of the three troublesome ones"(Drepung, Ganden and Sera) (Tibet Daily 25/11/95).

    Reports have been received of monks being sent to China for re-education. The authorities have also stepped up their political re-education campaigns at monastic institutions, especially since the unrest in Lhasa in May 1993.

    In autumn 1993 the Communist Party in Lhasa followed a "political re-education" campaign in nunneries to eradicate radicalism. Nuns have led 55 of the 126 known pro-independence protests in Lhasa in the last six years. The re-education strategy was carried out by "work-teams", who during regular visits held indoctrination sessions and imposed new regulations, including a ban on admission to the nunnery for any woman who had been detained for political activities. Nuns suspected of pro-independence activities have been expelled or imprisoned. The Chinese authorities are encouraging Tibet's 34,000 monks to move into business. Zhou Dunyon, the Chinese official in charge of Tibet's religious and nationality affairs, claims that "monks enjoy a good business image because of their respectable standing". Encouraging monks to trade is Beijing's way of defusing independence calls by non-military means-Tibetan monks have always been vociferous in calling for independence.

Administration of the Monasteries

  • The head of every monastery is appointed by the Religious Affairs Bureau, a state-run body founded in 1952. The Chinese authorities appoint a Democratic Committee for Monastic Affairs within each monastery, which acts as a liaison group with the local government. Calls came from the TAR Communist Party in late 1994 for these committees to control more effectively Tibetan Buddhism in monasterie's(Tibet Daily 25/11/94).
  • Monks are examined for political correctness and trained under Party supervision. They must not have been involved in "unpatriotic" activities. The authorities have set up work teams to control the political education of monastic institutions. Monks and nuns, especially the younger ones, are encouraged to spy on their colleagues (TIN News Update, 17/8/90).
  • Discovery of new incarnations is controlled and in certain cases has been proscribed by the authorities. The search for the incarnation of the Panchen Lama is to be conducted along lines defined by the Constitution of the PRC.
  • It is reported that in some monasteries, the financial arrangements are controlled by the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), and funds given to the monastery are required to be paid directly into a bank account administered solely by the RAB. According to witness reports, permission is usually required when a temple, or even a statue, is to be restored. Monasteries given state funds to be restored tend to be those on the tourist route. Tibetans claim that others have been built with private funds and donated labour. In rural areas reconstruction is discouraged.

Religion outside the Monasteries

Religious practitioners cannot be Party members, which affects access to housing and employment as well as political influence. Article 36 of the 1982 Constitution of the People's Republic of China (PRC) says its members enjoy freedom of religious belief. But Article 36 also says religious rituals, festivals and meetings can be banned on the grounds of disrupting social order. Religious education is banned from schools.

Overseas Organisations

The Party guidelines on religion state that no contact with overseas religious organisations is tolerated, rendering communication with Dharamsala unlawful. Showing devotion to the Dalai Lama can be construed as maintaining links with separatist organisations. Two monks were sentenced to five years imprisonment in September 1989, charged with spying for the Dalai Lama and accused of starting riots under instructions from Dharamsala. (Radio Lhasa, 23/8/89). That November, four monks received sentences of up to 15 years each. In October 1994, police in Lhasa confiscated all the photographs of the Dalai Lama that were on sale. Possession is now deemed a political offence rather than a religious matter.

New laws promulgated in January 1994 sharply increase the Communist government's control over religious activity in China and Tibet, banning foreign proselytising and forbidding monasteries from destructive, independent, unauthorised or overseas-financed activities.

In November 1994 Lhasa police carefully restricted access by monks to the visiting UN special rapporteur on religious intolerance. (TIN news update 2/1/95). However, a leading dissident, Yulo Dawa Tsering, a former abbot who had spent 27 years in prison, was able to air his concerns to the UN rapporteur(TIN 10/2/95).

Religion and 'Superstition'

Under Article 99 of the Chinese Criminal Law, heavy penalties can be exacted for the use of "feudal superstition and superstitious sects" to "carry on counter-revolutionary activities". The distinction between superstition and religion is left unclear, and the ban on superstition can be applied to religious practices.

A campaign launched in 1989 to eliminate the "six evils" which include "using feudal and superstitious beliefs to swindle and harm people", is liable to be used to help arrest religious figures considered to be leading political dissent. In May 1994, Raidi, a senior Communist leader in Tibet, called on party members to fight harder against pro-independence forces, claiming that crafty use of religion is creating "witches and warlocks" to spur people into revolt.

All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Tibet Support Group UK uses the term Tibet to refer to the three original provinces of U Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965). In 1949 the other two provinces, Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.

Tibet Support Group UK campaigns for the right of the Tibetan people to decide their own future and for an end to violation of their fundamental rights and freedoms. It is independent of all governments and is funded solely by its members and supporters.

Tibet Support Group UK publishes a series of information sheets under three headings:
Tibet Facts: TSG-authored documents on history, politics etc.,
Tibet File: Source Documents such as government resolutions, official declarations and expert essays,
Tibet Action: Campaign advice.

For a full list of these sheets and other information about our publications please do not hesitate to contact us.

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London N1 2XH
Telephone +44 (0)171 359 7573
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