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.
Sessions hailing communism, Chinese law and China’s role in Tibet often replace religious learning at monasteries centered on the study of Buddhist scriptures. Those who oppose “patriotic education” are expelled, arrested or sent on probation to “rethink.” Monks and nuns below 18 years of age are sent back to their homes. The administration of monasteries and nunneries traditionally carried out by abbots and lamas have been altered dramatically to ensure strict compliance and surveillance.
At the heart of “patriotic education” is the attack on the Dalai Lama. For Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of Lord Avalokiteshwara, the protector-deity of Tibet, a belief that makes him the leader of millions of Buddhists and places him at the center of the Tibetan way of life. However, empty frames stand today where his photos once hung or they have been replaced with photos of the communist leadership. For the last 17 years, possessing photos of the Dalai Lama or his books is a crime that can invite arrest and torture.
By February 1998, TCHRD had recorded 3,993 expulsions, 294 arrests and 14 deaths in connection to “patriotic education.” During this time, 30,000 of Tibet’s 46,000 monks and nuns received “patriotic education” and out of 1787 temples and monasteries, 1780 were covered by work-teams.
Later, the campaign was also extended to the lay community – to Tibetan homes, schools and universities, even to the tents of Tibet’s nomads.
The Chinese Perspective
“Patriotic education” sessions are aimed at proving China’s insistence that Tibet has been an integral part of China from 640 A.D, when Princess Wencheng Kungchu, daughter of the Chinese emperor, married Tibet’s great warrior-king Songtsen Gampo and that it was she who brought civilization to Tibet.
For China, the Dalai Lama is a political leader, albeit one in religious robes, who plots to split the country. In turn, Beijing reasons that since monasteries and nunneries are the most influenced by the “enemy” who is in exile in India since 1959, the battle against him must necessarily begin in those very places. And this battle has been both continuous and increasingly aggressive.
On May 25, 1996, Chen Kuiyan, Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) Party Secretary, said in public that “Monasteries are the most critical places penetrated by the Dalai Clique.
These are their conspiring and hiding places. These are also the places where most of their followers reside.”
In July 2010, the Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party in Tibet, Hao Peng justified the banning of the Dalai Lama’s photos, asserting that “The Dalai Lama is not merely a religious figure, he is also a mastermind of separatist activities. No sovereign country in the world would allow the hanging of a portrait of a person like that.”
Later, the Dalai Lama would also be accused of Nazi racial policies and inciting Tibetans to set themselves on fire. Such allegations resurfaced even as recently as in July 2013, when Tibetans marking the 78th birthday of the Dalai Lama were reportedly fired at.
The targeting comes even after the Dalai Lama made it clear that what he seeks for Tibet is “meaningful autonomy,” not a separate nation, as remaining within the People’s Republic of China is the “only realistic way” and is in Tibet’s “own interest.”
The Effects of “Patriotic Education”
The U.S State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report of 2001 quotes the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees Rudd Lubbers as pointing out that one-third of Tibetan refugees claim that they left because of the “patriotic re-education” campaigns.
In his book Tibet, Tibet, Patrick French recalls his meeting with Nyima, a young Tibetan nun from Lhasa. An extreme helplessness pervades her words:
‘Sometimes your head starts to spin and you don’t know what you really believe… You know the saying, “Yarlung na go dap, marde na kup dap, ghang dug dug re shak”? “If you stand up, you bump your head, if you sit down, you bang your arse. It’s really awful”? That’s what it’s like. Day after day, the Committee makes us repeat slogans, and they stop us from doing important ceremonies. It’s terrible. We get very frightened, especially the older nuns.
‘… I know that I must act according to the teachings of Lord Buddha, but as an individual I can do little, and have to keep it all stored up. I don’t feel free in my heart. I have no freedom on the inside.’
The extent of Chinese coercion is evident from the U.S State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report of 2008, which mentions that monks and nuns were required to trample a photo of the Dalai Lama. While the Dalai Lama has expressly allowed Tibetans to condemn and denounce him to escape torture, the centrality of religion in Tibetan life and his indispensable role in that centrality makes the tragedy echoed in these testimonies strikingly clear.
Today, China calls patriotic education in Tibet “legal education” or the “Love your Country, Love your Religion” campaign. While the government claims it to be a success, the continuing flow of Tibetans into exile and the increasing number of self-immolations (which stands at 120 at the time of writing) in Tibet tell an alarmingly different story.
Under international law, “patriotic education” and its crippling of Tibetan Buddhism is a blatant violation of various human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which China signed on October 5, 1998, but has yet to ratify) permits certain limitations on the manifestation of freedom of religion – “such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others” – only the most expansive interpretation of these restrictions has allowed China, a member of the UN Human Rights Council from 2006-2012, to defend its Tibet policies.
When the Chinese government unveiled its National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) 2012-2015, hopes were drawn by the words that “Further efforts will be made to ensure ethnic minorities enjoy equal economic, political, social and cultural rights.” However, enthusiasm was tempered by the caveat that “The Chinese government respects the principle of universality of human rights, but also upholds proceeding from China’s national conditions and new realities to advance the development of its human rights cause on a practical basis.” (Emphasis added.) How this explanation will be employed in Tibet remains to be seen. Though there have been reports of an easing of the complete ban on worshipping the Dalai Lama, it is not clear if they mark a substantial change of policy.
In March 2012, Jampel Yeshi, who died as a result of self-immolation in New Delhi protesting against the then Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India, lamented in a note he left behind that “without freedom, six million Tibetans are like a butter lamp in the wind, without direction.”
Anand Upendran is a student of Law at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, India.