Two assertions that President of China Xi Jinping have made lately would make a horse laugh. According to a Xinhua report, on August 29, 2020 he said: “Tibetan Buddhism should be guided in adapting to the socialist society and should be developed in the Chinese context.” Xi was addressing in Beijing the seventh Central Symposium on Tibet Work.
The other was made on July 16, 2022, when Xi Jinping was on a visit to the Xinjiang region of China. He asked officials to step up efforts to uphold the principle that Islam in China must be Chinese in orientation and religions in China must adapt to the socialist society being pursued by the Communist Party of China.
On September 21 in Beijing top leader of the CPC Wang Yang in a meeting with leaders of China Islamic Association asked the over 25 million Muslims of China to reorient Islam to Chinese conditions and implement fully the basic policy on religion of the CPC, maintaining the “correct political direction” and upholding the “banner of socialism;” really a rhetoric to clamp down of the freedom of religious practices.
The weight of facts is too heavy to make the hope of the leaders of the CPC to mould Buddhism and Islam, two of the largest faiths in the world, to suit the frame of the Communist Party of China a bit too ambitious. Both Buddhism and Islam have survived and grown for far too many years, are spread in far too many countries and have far too many followers to be overwhelmed by the heresy of the CPC.
With about 400 million followers, Buddhism is today one of the largest religions in the world. Islam is the second largest religious community globally, with an estimated 1.8 billion followers. By contrast, in 2022, CPC had a membership of 96 million. China itself has a population of 1.4 billion. Thus, not even 10 percent of the Chinese people are members of the CPC. The Council on Foreign Relations quotes Freedom House that there are between 185 and 250 million practitioners of Buddhism in China itself, a far larger number than the membership of the CPC.
The other day the Communist Party of China celebrated its centenary with much fanfare. By contrast, the creation of Islam was in the 7th century AD, some 1,500 years ago; its roots going back further. Buddhism has flourished for the past 2,500 years and survived many vicissitudes in between, spreading to different parts of Asia since ancient times; and also to Europe in the 20th century.
Buddhism is predominant in Bhutan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Tibet, Laos, Macau, Mongolia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Large populations of Buddhists live in India, Nepal, South Korea and North Korea. Islam has spread to all corners of the globe.
The odds are, therefore, too heavily stacked against the possibility of the Communist Party of China overwhelming either Buddhism or Islam even in the distant future.
As Buddhism has spread it has encountered new thoughts and religious beliefs; and moulded itself to suit the new environment, says Britannica. In Mahayana Buddhism, the strict laws of karma were modified to introduce ritual actions and devotional practices. In Vajrayana Buddhism that has flourished in Tibet, Buddhism had to introduce in its tenets elements of sorcery to meet the challenges of the traditional faith of Bon. But, Buddhism has never abandoned its basic principles, like good deeds.
It is anybody’s guess what CPC leaders mean by Buddhism moulding itself to the Chinese context, but it is nowhere near the basic principles of the faith as propounded by Buddha. On January 13, 2016, CPC general secretary for Tibet Autonomous Region Chen Quanguo, while talking to monks and communist party cadres at Jokhang temple in Lhasa, gave an idea of what it was; nothing different from the principles followed by the CPC itself. He asked the lamas and nuns of Tibet to “unswervingly follow the party and firmly fight against separatist, infiltrative and disruptive activities,” asking them to “expound the religious canons and doctrines in compliance with the progress of the times and contribute to building a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way.”
This betrayed the ignorance of the top boss of CPC in Tibet of the basic principles of universal human values that were the core of any religion, values which could not change with the times; for instance, the concept of Bodhisattva, one of the noblest of principles that a person who had set out to discover the path of freedom from suffering must also teach others and wait for them to attain salvation. Shorn of terminologies, this means the enlightened sections in a society must help others to come up.
To make Tibetan Buddhism fall in line, the Chinese authorities have destroyed monasteries, institutes of Buddhism and statues of Buddha in recent times. The most notorious of these was the destruction in July 2016 of Larung Gar, the largest Tibetan Buddhism institute in the world. “In July 2016, Larung Gar was transformed from a place of quiet religious contemplation and study into a scene of devastation,” writes Tibet Watch. Alarmed over the growing number of teachers, students, monks and nuns, nearly 5.000 people were removed and an almost equal number of houses destroyed.
In December 2021, a 99-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha at Gaden Namgyal Ling Monastery at Kham Drago along with 44 prayer wheels and thousands of prayer flags were destroyed. Another three-storey, 40-foot high, statue of Padmasambhava at a different monastery in Drago was destroyed in early January 2022.
The recent attacks on Buddhist culture in Tibet have been described as the revival of the notorious Cultural Revolution in an effort at Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism. All these are a mockery of the assertion of the Panchen Lama appointed by Beijing, Gyaltsen Norbu, at a speech at Lhoka city, in Shannan prefecture, in September 2022: “Tibetans are the happiest people in the world. Without the Communist Party of China, there would be no achievements made today, and without the Communist Party of China there would be no bright future. Therefore, we must be grateful to the party, listen to the party and follow the party.”
A main aim of this Sinicization is evident. With the advancing age of the 14th Dalai Lama, the Chinese are anxious to ensure that they foist on the Tibetans a Dalai Lama of their own choice after the demise of the 14th.
The facts do not support the assertion that Tibetans are the happiest people in the world. Over 150 Tibetans have committed self-immolation in Tibet between 2009 and 2020; among them 132 are known to have died, says the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala in India. According to a report in Tibet Rights Collective, between September 23 and September 24, at least five people committed suicide in Lhasa; unable to suffer the draconian Covid-19 restrictions imposed on Tibet plateau.
The repression unleashed on the Uyghur of the Xinjiang region, adherents of the Islamic faith, is a sordid story that has been exposed in a report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that has described it as a crime against humanity. More than one million people belonging to the ethnic Uyghur community have been imprisoned since 2017, and those not detained have been subjected to intense surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labour and forced sterilization. Significantly, the birth rate in the Xinjiang region has fallen below the national average in China since 2017.
Together with Tibet, the Xinjiang region has become the prime target of Sinicization, says an Observer Research Foundation paper. Mosques have been closed, Quranic studies abolished, inter-faith marriages and circumcision have been banned. The Freedom House, in a report titled ‘Islam: Religious Freedom in China,’ says: “Both Hui and Uyghur Muslims have experienced intensified restrictions and Islamophobia since Xi Jinping became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party; with controls deepening and expanding in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region particularly.” A campaign to discourage women from covering their faces and heads and men from growing beards was started. Restrictions on Uyghur fasting during the Ramadan have intensified. It has become dangerous to pray with other Muslims outside of a mosque as religious activities can take place only in restricted venues. Uyghur protestors have been fired upon and harsh prison sentences have been handed down for circulating information on religious affairs or violation of human rights.
None of the harangues of the Communist Party of China has, however, impressed adherents of the Buddhist and Islamic faiths in China. Significantly, when President Xi Jinping visited Tibet in July 2021 after a gap of three decades, the authorities had to keep the visit a secret. The short visit of two days and one night was restricted to official events and a few orchestrated public appearances. Devout Buddhists as the Tibetans are, obviously they are more interested in keeping in their homes a photo of the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader, than following the tenets of Buddhism as laid down by the CPC.
Xi’s visit to the Xinjiang region exactly a year later, in July 2022, was also an unannounced one, his second trip to the region in eight years. It was again a short visit that lasted only a day and a half. Photos showed that the crowds that welcomed him were obviously orchestrated. Experts argued that the trip was meant to show that the repressive policies in Xinjiang had been successful; while the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress feared that Xi’s visit to Xinjiang indicated that there were even darker days ahead for the Uyghur community.
Analysts say the CPC mandarins, with repressive measures, could make the Buddhists and Muslims of China to fall in line but would certainly not succeed in winning over their hearts and minds. The age-old religious beliefs would be nurtured and deepened in secret, away from the watchful eyes of the Chinese security guards.