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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.
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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
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.
Tibet Support Group UK
9 Islington Green
London N1 2XH
Telephone +44 (0)171 359 7573
Fax +44 (0)171 354 1026
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