Earlier this month, just a day before the Beijing Olympics 2022 opened on February 4, hundreds of Tibetan activists marched against the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Switzerland. The activists blamed the organization for supporting China, which is “committing atrocities against ethnic minorities”. Not only that, eight countries, including Canada, the US and Britain, have declared a diplomatic boycott of the Games over China’s terrible human rights record.“Despite well-documented evidence of systematic rights violations by China, the IOC chose to place profit over people,” the Tibetan exile group stated. China, however, has denied all allegations of human rights abuses and accused the activists of “politicising” sports. “The so-called China human rights issue is a lie made up by people with ulterior motives,” Zhao Weidong, spokesman for the Beijing Games, has said.
This is not the first time that Tibetans have registered their protest in the backdrop of an international event. In 2008, over 150 Tibetans had reportedly self-immolated after the Beijing Summer Games to protest the “repression in Tibet”.Tibet was first occupied by China in 1950. Beijing termed this forceful occupation a “peaceful liberation”. Now, the Tibet Autonomous Region, more than 80% of whose population comprises ethnic Tibetans, is one of China’s most restricted areas. Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has even equated Beijing’s rule with “cultural genocide”.The last decade under Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been especially troublesome. During this period, Beijing not only intensified its crackdown on Buddhist learning centres and religious sites but on many other cultural minorities.
For instance, since 2014, nearly 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic communities, which mainly practise Islam, have been placed in “re-education” centres and are being deployed as forced labour in Xinjiang and other places. Their children are forcibly placed in Mandarin-only boarding schools and orphanages for indoctrination. Thousands of mosques, cemeteries and buildings have been destroyed while a staggering 11 million Uyghurs have been put under intense surveillance. Last year in February, Canada became the second country after the US to recognize China’s actions as “genocide”.
In a similar vein, the Chinese authorities have switched Tibetan language schools to Chinese and are putting in serious effort to cut Tibetans off their ancient traditions, as per news reports. Recently, they demolished a 99-foot statue of Lord Buddha in the Tibetan region of Sichuan. Many, including strategic expert Brahma Chellaney, compared the unfortunate incident to the Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. Demolition of the two historic and giant 15th-century statues in Afghanistan had sent shock waves across the world.
“China is walking in the footsteps of the Taliban. Taliban has destroyed numerous religious artefacts in Afghanistan during their first reign before the US invasion where their most notable targets were two massive Buddha statues built in the sixth century,” Chellaney tweeted.
Beijing has claimed there were official complaints that the venerated statue was too high and that its construction documents were fraudulent. The regional Chinese authorities even forced Tibetan monks and other residents to watch the demolition, which started on December 12 last year and went on for the next nine days. But rights organizations assert the statue was built with complete agreement of the local authorities and that all legal documents required for the construction were in place. Built with great effort in 2015, the bronze statue had cost nearly $6.3 million, donated by the local Tibetans.
Just before dismantling the Buddha, a monastic school in the area was also demolished on the ground that it violated the land use law. The school was an important education hub in the region, offering classes in Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan language, Chinese Mandarin, and English. Its 130 students were forced to return home, in violation of their fundamental rights to religion, language, and preservation and practice of one’s own culture and tradition.Besides that, the Chinese authorities have also been targeting Tibetans, especially activists who raise their voice against Beijing’s atrocities. One of their latest targets was Tibetan monk and writer Gendun Lhundup, who was last seen on December 2, 2020, being forcibly taken into a car.
Lhundup’s only crime was to raise a question during a workshop organized on the topic of “sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism”. The workshop was held in the Rebgong County and Gendun had reportedly asked, “… how does one sinicize Tibetan Buddhism?”. The simple question led to a verbal altercation between him and the speaker. After a few days, he was arrested while on his way to attend a dialectics session.On September 27, 2021, his family was informed about his trial via a phone call but no one has seen Lhundup or know his whereabouts since then. A Tibetan language website that he administered was also shut down, among many others.
The fact is that the Xi Jinping-led leadership has not only made the sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism a priority but it was publicly declared an official policy in 2017. It empowered the Chinese Communist Party to become the overseer of all religion-related activities in China. Five years down the line, the policy is making its ominous presence felt not only in the monasteries but also in academia.
Case in point: A landmark conference was held at the Tsongon Buddhist University in Xining last year, where at least 35 academic papers on the sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism were presented. More than 500 religious leaders, government officials and academics attended the three-day conference. Critics like Lhundup face a long time in prison, especially if any links with the 86-year-old Dalai Lama, who has lived in India since 1959, can be proved. Recently, China once again warned Tibetans looking for employment to renounce their ties with the Dalai Lama.
Meanwhile, in a latest development, an additional Chinese police surveillance unit has been deployed inside a Buddhist monastery in the Qinghai province. The surveillance team is meant to monitor monks and their daily activities. A specific app on their mobile phones helps the team members identify and track the monks’ conversations, as per sources.
Despite these gross human rights violations, the IOC’s awarding of the Olympics to China has attracted widespread criticism and profound concerns by the global powers. Even as China tried to distract the world with the glitzy athletic spectacle, experts say the recent controversies will be difficult to ignore. The Olympics could well become the turning point for China, with the global community renewing its diplomatic push to improve the country’s human rights record.