China’s new religious crackdown in Tibet appears to have a broader context and has especially come at a time when there is growing interest in the mainland on Tibetan culture and spiritual tradition as some Chinese search for a meaning in life, writes Rene Wadlow*
There have been periodical periods of repression on religious liberty in Tibet by the Chinese government usually related to broader policies concerning religion on the part of the government. We may be in such a period now as there is a Muslim element in the repressive policy toward the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and a less obvious Christian element in the repressive policy in Hong Kong where Christian churches and Christian-related universities are strong champions of human rights. It is also possible that recent events in Afghanistan have made some government officials more aware of the religious element in political trends.
The reasons for the crackdown were not articulated by the police authorities who only cited having photos of the Dalai Lama and correspondence with Tibetans living in India and Nepal for the closing of Kharmar Monastery in Gansu Provence in late July and the arrest of over 120 Tibetans including six monks from Dza Wompo Gaden Shedrup Monastery in early September. Crackdown in religious practice in Tibet has been periodical. In 1951 Chinese government troops entered Tibet under a “17 Point Agreement” which left Tibet largely autonomous under the Dalai Lama. However, in March 1959, China imposed the socialist system on Tibet in the name of “democratic reforms”. The Dalai Lama, fearing that he would be arrested, left for India, followed by his entourage of highly trained lamas and later by other Tibetans. The Tibetans were settled in the Himalaya hill station of Dharamsala by the Indian government.
In May 1966, Mao Zedong launched the “Great Cultural Revolution” to “Smash the four olds” (old ideology, old culture, old customs, and old habits). A large number of monasteries, temples and shrines were destroyed in Tibet.
Again, in March 1989, martial law was declared in Lhasa following three days of riots during which thousands of Tibetans took to the streets to attack Chinese-owned stores and government offices. There was a crackdown on religious practice as Buddhism and a sense of nationhood remain for most Tibetans common mobilizing symbols despite the decades of Chinese rule.
At other times, there have been meetings between Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama such as those of 2002 when the Dalai Lama’s representatives set out a “Middle Way Approach” to secure genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people within the scope of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China. In a follow up meeting in 2008, a detailed memorandum of “Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People” was presented by the Tibetan representatives. There were meetings in 2010 to clarify concerns and possible misinterpretations of the Memorandum, although there has been no formal follow up since 2010.
Within China itself, there is an increasing interest in Tibetan traditions of Buddhism. There are some 50 institutes specializing in Tibetan studies. The interest is both cultural and spiritual as some Chinese search for a meaning in life.
Thus it is not clear if the recent arrests are the start of a broader crackdown or the actions of local police officials. From the outside, those of us concerned with safeguarding religious liberty must follow events in China closely.
* Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, a worldwide movement of individuals who participate fully in the emerging cosmopolitan, humanist world society.