Religion, particularly Buddhism, is relevant more than ever in today’s China, whose government is expected to invest more than $1 trillion in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On one hand, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping acknowledges that religion can be used to feed the social vacuum in capitalist China. At the same time, the CCP has not strayed far from the position of Mao Zedong, who whispered to the Dalai Lama during the latter’s visit to Beijing in 1954 that “Religion is poison… both Tibet and Mongolia were poisoned by it.”
Under the current leadership in Beijing, China employs Buddhism as a vital asset to resolve both the domestic crisis at home and add soft power to its diplomatic relations. Internationally, the narrative of China’s leadership of the Buddhist world is generated from its heavy investment in building Buddhist institutions in China and its engagements with Buddhist countries.
New Buddhist Institutions in China
For an officially atheist country, China has invested in the symbols of Buddhism. For example, in 1996 China completed construction of the Lingshan Grand Buddha located at the Ling Shan Brahma Buddhist Palace in Wuxi. This is flaunted as the tallest bronze Shakyamuni statue in the world.
More recently, the Nanhai Buddhism Academy in Hainan province opened in September 2017 with 220 students (including students from overseas). The Nanhai Buddhism Academy is touted as China’s version of the Nalanda University.
Besides the institution- and statue-building, China actively engages Buddhist scholars and students from Buddhist countries by inviting them to the World Buddhist Forum, which is held every three years. Since 2006, there have been four such fora, hosted in Hangzhou (2006), Wuxi and Taipei (2009), Hong Kong (2012), and Wuxi again (2015). The fifth is underway in Putian, Fujian province, as of October 28. The forum – which, tellingly, was conceived of by “eight Buddhist masters from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong” — serves the strategic interests of Beijing.
Gyaltsen Norbu, who was appointed and installed by the CCP as the 11th Panchen Lama, was invited in all first three forums to deliver keynote address. The Chinese government failed to gain acceptance for Gyaltsen Norbu from the religious communities of the world. The Chinese government also failed to convince Tibetans to support Gyaltsen Norbu even after he initiated the Kalachakra teachings. But through his attendance at each World Buddhist Forum, Chinese leaders at least hope to gain some respect for their Panchen Lama, if not recognition from the attendees.
As further evidence of its role in advancing a Chinese agenda, the World Buddhist Forum has not been spared from discussion about President Xi Jinping’s BRI project. This week’s forum has a session on how Buddhism can contribute to the BRI.
Investment Abroad in Buddhist Soft Power
The Chinese government also spends millions of dollars in South and Southeast Asian countries to link their Buddhist heritage to the soft landing of BRI.
In Bangladesh, Chinese and Bangladeshi archaeologists excavated a 1,000 year old site of Buddhist heritage, Nateshwar, where Atisha Dipankara, a great Indian Buddhist master, spent his early life. The project was funded by the Chinese government.
China also build the Lotus Sutra tower in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka – but in the mind of Professor Patrick Mendis, a commissioner of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, the building has a deeper symbolic significance. Mendis writes that the Lotus Tower, “emanating from the Lotus Sutra in Buddhism, is a narrative for Beijing to formulate a sustainable and peaceful ‘soft power’ strategy that would appeal globally.”
Nepal, the birthplace of Buddhism, happily welcomed the BRI and was offered $3 billion for the Lumbini project, designed to expand the small Nepali town where Buddha was born into “the premier place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world.” The funds for the project were channeled through the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), whose executive vice president, Xiao Wunan, “is a member of the CCP and holds a position at the National Development and Reform Commission, a state agency,” according to Al Jazeera.
The Chinese government has another plan in promoting Lumbini in Nepal. Lumbini attracted 1.55 million tourists and pilgrims in 2017; China hopes to to divert 23 million tourists from the state of Bihar in India to Lumbini through its new narrative projecting the significance of Buddha’s birthplace over Bhodgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. By connecting Kathmandu with a railway line arriving from Tibet by 2023, the Chinese and Nepalese government will promote two-way pilgrim traffic to and from Buddhist sites in Nepal, Tibet, and China.
China’s soft power pedaling, emphasizing Buddhist heritage, is designed to reward countries with significant Buddhist populations for receiving the BRI project with open arms. China’s Buddhist soft power is supposed to get rid of their suspicions about the true intention of the Belt and Road.
The Dalai Lama and China’s Buddhism Soft Power
In future, however, the CCP will hope to use this soft power investment for another goal: to seek recognition from Buddhist countries for Beijing’s appointment of the 15th Dalai Lama. In Tibet, CCP preparations to install the 15th Dalai Lama are in full swing. Order No. 5, implemented since 2007, was the first signal of Beijing’s attempt to intervene in the reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism. After the prayers offered by the Gyaltsen Norbu at the Lhamoi Lhatso Lake – traditionally a place of pilgrimage during the search for a new Dalai Lama — on 18 August 18, 2018, Dharamshala needs no further explanation of the intention of the Chinese government.
Seeking control over Tibetan Buddhism is part of the CCP’s broader quest to have all religious groups in China under its thumb. This was apparent in the recent negotiations between Beijing and the Vatican over the appointment of bishops in China. When supporters and Christian countries criticized China’s plot to interfere in their Christian faith, Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs of China, asserted CCP sovereignty over religious matters within China. He added, “There is no affiliate relationship between our country’s religions and foreign religions. Our country’s religious groups and religious matters do not accept domination by foreign forces.”
China’s investment in the BRI and its Buddhist soft power are a double edge sword that China is wielding. The pressure will be high for Buddhist countries in a debt trap to do what China wishes, and the soft power gambit provides the rationale these countries need to follow China’s lead.
Completely lost on China is the religious significance of all this. In Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation is a system rooted in the centuries-old practice of faith in their Buddhist concept of rebirth. According to this system, enlightened beings are empowered with choices that are beyond the comprehension of ordinary human beings. Like other enlightened beings, the 14th Dalai Lama has the sole authority to be or not to be reincarnated and to choose the time and space for his reincarnation. That Beijing does not respect that authority is hard proof of the limits of its Buddhist soft power push.
Dr. Rinzin Dorjee is a Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala, India.