In Tibet, the greatest casualties of Chinese governance have been religion and culture. From its invasion, or “liberation” in Beijing’s eyes, of Tibet in 1949, through the years of “Democratic Reforms” and “Cultural Revolution,” to today, China has converted a land of Buddhism and open-minded philosophy into a territory where a government and its laws control faith and dictate belief.
Buddhist monks and nuns have protested numerous times against the denial of religious expression. For instance, the 1987-89 unrest in Tibet was led largely by the monks of Drepung, Sera and Ganden, Lhasa’s three largest monasteries. In turn, the Chinese authorities have looked upon Tibetan religious institutions as breeding grounds for dissent, and have retaliated through greater restrictions and control. One such policy is “patriotic re-education” or simply “patriotic education,” under which “work-teams” (known in Chinese as gongzou dui and in Tibetan as ledonrukhag) consisting of both Chinese and trusted Tibetan officials visit monasteries and nunneries to force on monks and nuns the concept of unity of Tibet and China and to identify dissidents.
Patriotic education was launched in Tibet in 1996 as part of the national “Strike Hard” campaign against crime and corruption. However, the testimonies of Tibetan refugees, documented at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), suggest that the concept and practice of “patriotic education” flourished well before its official implementation.
Bhagdro was a monk at Ganden Monastery when a work team fifty or sixty strong arrived at the monastery in October 1987, soon after the unrest began. Interviewed by the Tibet Information Network in May 1998 after he escaped to India, Bhagdro recalled:
“The meeting began by condemning the monks of Drepung and Sera for indulging in ‘reactionary activities’ designed to harm the interests of the ‘motherland.’ It was advised that the Ganden monks should not follow the bad example set by the monks of these two Lhasa monasteries. The first meeting dispersed with the distribution of newspapers to the monks who were asked to study them and to learn the ideological overtone of the contents. We were told to be prepared to answer questions along those lines after two or three days. Expectedly, they talked about wiping out ‘separatists,’ about the unity of the ‘Great Motherland’ and how Tibet and China, being like mother and son, were an inseparable entity… In order to make things more manageable to the team, the monks were divided into small groups. This made many of us very angry. For many, this was a moment of political awakening.”
On March 5, 1988, Bhagdro participated in the revolt that took place in Lhasa during the Great Prayer Festival (Monlam Chenmo) and was arrested. In prison, he would face worse:
“On Sundays, our one day off from work, we had to study Chinese policies. We were taught about Deng Xiaoping and had to write his political statements in our books and learn about his life and that of other high officials. We were told that Tibet would never be free and that the Chinese government is good. They said that Tibetan and Chinese were members of one family and that we would never get our independence. Sometimes high Chinese officials would come and give us instructions. They would say that Tibet would never be independent as China had the political and economic power to do anything. They also said that they had powerful bombs and that the Chinese army was very strong. They said that Tibet would only be free in our daydreams…
“Practicing religion was not allowed in prison. All I could do was wait until night time and then when I was lying in bed, put a blanket over my face and recite my prayers. If anyone practiced openly, they were beaten and tortured… We were made to study the Chinese version of the history of Tibet. Those who disagreed with its contents were tied up, made to run and beaten.”
The work teams required monks and nuns to accept a five-point statement, pledging:
1. Opposition to separatism;
2. Unity of Tibet and China;
3. Recognition of the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama as the true Panchen Lama;
4. Agreement that the Dalai Lama is destroying the unity of the Motherland;
5. Denial that Tibet was or should be independent.