WASHINGTON - International rights groups and officials of the Tibetan government in exile say Chinese President Xi Jinping's latest calls to "Sinicize" Tibetan Buddhism are a threat to Tibetan identity and culture.
Xi's comments came at a recent senior Communist Party meeting on Tibet’s future governance, where the president said Beijing must build an “impregnable fortress” to maintain stability in Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. He also called for enhancing China’s national security by educating the masses in the struggle against "splittism," or deviating from the party’s official policies.
China has long viewed Tibetan Buddhism as a source of “separatist power,” which Beijing has targeted with "reeducational patriotism" campaigns that force Tibetan monks to denounce Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
In the past decade or so, the Communist Party of China (CCP) officials have been posted in major TAR monasteries and communities closer to China, such as Larung Gar in Sichuan province, one of the world’s foremost centers of Tibetan Buddhist study.
Xi's vow to build a "new modern socialist Tibet that is united, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful" would be achieved primarily via secondary school reforms that “plant the seeds of loving China deep in the heart of every youth." And by "actively [guiding] Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to the socialist society and promote the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism,” Xi said.
Disrespecting the faith
Broadly defined, Sinicization is a campaign to reform or mold the belief systems and doctrine of any religious faith into compliance with CPC values.
In 2015, Xi discussed a plan to Sinicize the beliefs of the five largest religious groups in China: Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam.
Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson told VOA's Tibetan Service that Xi's latest remarks on faith are a red flag for rights observers.
"Xi’s campaign of Sinicization is a model of anti-rights policies, especially as far as religious freedom is concerned," Richardson said. "Individuals are free to believe what they like and worship as they like; these are not rights states can give, take away or otherwise dictate.
"No one is fooled by his claims that these policies respect Tibetans or Buddhism," she said.
Dharamshala-based Karma Choeying, spokesperson for the Tibetan government in exile, said Xi's remarks are just the latest in a decadeslong campaign to control not just Tibetan Buddhism, but Tibetan culture itself.
“This is to Sinicize Tibet,” he told VOA, speaking in Tibetan.
“They’ve been trying to do this for the past 60 years and now President Xi Jinping is saying that they need to put more effort on it," Choeying said. "This is to Sinicize Tibetan identity, religion and culture.”
China seized control over Tibet in 1950 in what it described as a “peaceful liberation” that helped the remote Himalayan region throw off its “feudalist” past. But critics, led by the Dalai Lama, say Beijing’s rule amounts to “cultural genocide.”
“Xi Jinping's plan to further tighten his grip over occupied Tibet is yet another desperate attempt to continue China’s decadeslong colonial exploitation," Dorjee Tseten, executive director of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet, said.
"China’s plan to further Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism threatens the existence of Tibetans’ unique identity and culture," Tseten told VOA. "This plan will never be accepted by Tibetans and will lead to stronger resistance.”
Matteo Mecacci, director of the U.S.-based International Campaign for Tibet, recently told Reuters that Xi's remarks are an indication of China's failure to integrate Tibet into Chinese society.
“If Tibetans really benefited as much from Chinese leadership as Xi and other officials claim, then China wouldn’t have to fear separatism and wouldn’t need to subject Tibetans to political reeducation,” he said in an email, according to Reuters.
Remarks follow clashes
China's stepped-up efforts to integrate the TAR, which borders India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma), coincide with a recent spate of deadly border skirmishes with Indian troops. A clash in late June along a stretch of unmarked border in the Galwan Valley left 20 Indian troops dead and an undisclosed number of Chinese casualties.
Military and diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation have so far proven fruitless.
China's strategies to integrate Tibet have also targeted other cultural institutions, such as marriage. In 2014, Chen Quanguo, then-CPC secretary of TAR, said “the government must actively promote intermarriages,” between Tibetans and Chinese in order to promote “ethnic unity.”
Suppression 'completely correct'
China has also used forced reeducation, detention, torture and intimidation as tools to achieve “stability.”
In 2019, VOA obtained a leaked journal of a Tibetan detainee from one of the “reform through re-education" camps that shows the use of torture in the camps is a regular practice. Beijing has employed similar tactics on Muslim Uighurs who are prisoners in Xinjiang.
Xi's Saturday speech was the keynote address for the Seventh Tibet Work Forum. The gathering coincided with the 55th anniversary of the founding of the TAR, marked by the establishment of the regional People’s Congress on September 1, 1965.
During the speech, Xi showed no signs of willingness to engage in a dialogue proposed by the Tibetan Exile Government and the Dalai Lama. Instead, he indicated recent hardline policies would continue.
“Practice has fully proved that the Party Central Committee’s policies on Tibet are completely correct, and that Tibet’s sustained, stable and rapid development is an important contribution to the overall work of the party and the country,” Xi said.
China’s policies toward Tibet have come under the spotlight again this year as ties fray between Washington and Beijing.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday told a press conference the administration is "concerned about Chinese actions in Tibet, in light of the general secretary’s recent calls to 'Sinicize' Tibetan Buddhism and fight splittism' there."
"We continue to call upon Beijing to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without preconditions, to reach a settlement that resolves their differences," he said.
In July, Pompeo said the United States would restrict visas for some Chinese officials involved in blocking diplomatic access to Tibet and engaging in “human rights abuses,” adding that Washington supported “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet. State Department sanctions targeting China also touched on documented human rights abuses in Hong Kong and against predominantly ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
In a retaliatory move, China said it would impose visa restrictions on U.S. citizens who have engaged in what it called “egregious” behavior over Tibet.
This story originated in VOA's Tibetan Service. Some information is from Reuters.