Features | Society | East Asia

China’s Misguided Religious Battle

The Communist Party shows no sign of letting up in its battle with religion. Indeed, for Buddhists at least, things are getting worse.

At a time when the world has been horrified by recurring news of Tibetan monks and nuns self-immolating in protest over Beijing’s repressive policies, the Chinese government is attempting to widen its control over religious activities. Indeed, the Communist government is even making pronouncements on theology.

This isn’t the first time the government has waded into theology. In 1995, the Dalai Lama named a Tibetan boy as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama – the second holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. But the atheistic Communist Party stepped in, put the boy under house arrest, and named another as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.

To use a biblical analogy, this is akin to King Herod choosing not to order the death of the baby Jesus, but instead orchestrating his kidnapping and the substitution of another boy in his place.

Through its actions, Beijing has created a huge religious problem for Tibetan Buddhists, who no longer know where the genuine Panchen Lama is and, of course, won’t be able to follow the ritual of identifying his reincarnation when he dies. Chinese political meddling has thus created theological issues for believers. Despite the Constitution’s guarantees, the government isn’t allowing Tibetans freedom of belief.

Back in 2007, China institutionalized such meddling in theological issues by issuing regulations on the reincarnation of all Tibetan “Living Buddhas.” According to these regulations, reincarnations must be submitted to the party’s Religious Affairs Bureau for approval.

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The gall of this announcement is astonishing. Previously, the Party claimed the right to approve pregnancies. Unapproved pregnancies were terminated. But how, one wonders, does the party disapprove a reincarnation? Reincarnation is, after all, the belief that the soul of a person returns to reside in a new human body, either as a human being or even as an animal or a plant. One either believes or does not believe in reincarnation. It’s ridiculous for a nonbeliever to claim the right to decide who can or cannot be reincarnated.

And if, in the minds of the faithful, a holy man has indeed been reincarnated, who is the Party to decided that such a spiritual event hasn’t taken place? The party operates on a material level – it has no authority at the spiritual level.

Of course, the Party’s claims to such authority are rooted in politics. It cites precedents dating back to the time of Mongol and Manchu rule in China. But the Mongols and Manchus were believers who revered Tibetan lamas. Today’s Chinese leaders are atheists who can by no stretch of the imagination be considered patrons of the faith.

The party wishes to control the entire hierarchy of Tibetans lamas so that, in future, it can claim that all lamas were reincarnated through its approval. Instead of a separation of church and state the church will become the instrument of the party-state.

Ultimately, it boils down to controlling the next Dalai Lama. The incumbent is now 76 years-old, and Beijing sees the endgame as approaching. It hopes to groom a boy who will become an instrument of party policy rather than a spokesman for Tibetan cultural and religious autonomy.

However, the wily Dalai Lama is fully cognizant of this game plan and hopes to thwart it by throwing down a theological gauntlet. In a 4,000-word statement last September, the purpose of which was clearly political but whose weapons were theological, the Dalai Lama displayed his full armory of theological weapons.

“Reincarnation,” he said, “is a phenomenon which should take place either through the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least on the strength of his or her karma, merit and prayers. Therefore, the person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized.”

That is to say, he and he alone will determine where and how he will be reincarnated, not Beijing.

The Dalai Lama went on: “It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas.”

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Unsheathing another arrow, the Dalai Lama wrote at length on emanations vis-à-vis reincarnation.

“Reincarnation is what happens when someone takes rebirth after the predecessor’s passing away,” he explained. “Emanation is when manifestations take place without the source’s passing away.”

While ordinary people can’t manifest an emanation before death, superior Bodhisattvas – and the Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion – can manifest themselves in hundreds of thousands of bodies simultaneously and can manifest an emanation before death. That is to say, the Dalai Lama can, while still living, designate a person as his emanation and that person can be his successor, without going through the reincarnation process.

Theologically, it seems, the Dalai Lama has played a trump card. But Beijing doesn’t play by the same rules. It has said no to emanation, and will insist on reincarnation. In the end, the Tibetan exile community may recognize whomever the Dalai Lama designates but, within Tibet, China will go its own way, producing a baby boy whom it designates as the next Dalai Lama.

Actually, China is finding it increasingly difficult to defend a religious policy that puts atheists in charge of deciding which religions are orthodox and which ones are heretical, and which religious teachings are acceptable and which ones aren’t.

The Chinese Constitution declares: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religion. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion.”

And yet this is patently not the case. The state doesn’t allow its citizens to believe in any religion. Rather, it only recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.

Moreover, despite the seemingly evenhanded wording of the Constitution regarding believers and nonbelievers, the Communist Party clearly discriminates against religious believers in favor of nonbelievers. People who believe in religion aren’t even supposed to be allowed to join the party, the locus of all power. (For the past decade at least, the Communist Party has even absorbed capitalists into the party but still excludes religious leaders).

This echoes the Mencian saying about the divide between mental and manual workers – those who labor with their minds govern others; those who labor with their hands are governed by others. Believers in religion will forever be governed by Communists.

It would be better for all concerned if Communist leaders would instead take to heart a biblical suggestion: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” 

Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. Now based in Hong Kong, he writes a regular column on Chinese affairs. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, China Quarterly, the Washington Quarterly and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1