China Power | Society | East Asia

China’s Hidden Crackdown in Tibet

The Chinese state has used the coronavirus pandemic to deepen its advance into the private and devotional lives of Tibetans.

By Kate Saunders for
China’s Hidden Crackdown in Tibet

Troops facing pilgrims at the Monlam Chenmo prayer festival in Kumbum, Qinghai, one of the largest
Tibetan monasteries, in March 2015.

Credit: Courtesy of the International Campaign for Tibet

On April 1, government officials arrived at a remote rural monastery in Markham, Tibet, where local people were completing the construction of a small building in the temple compound to house around 16 monks. It was built of rammed earth in the traditional style using the collective labor of local people, unlike so many other new religious buildings in the area, which tend to be constructed from concrete by imported workers.

The officials told monks that the building was not allowed. The next day, April 2, police arrived with a bulldozer and razed it to the ground. When the abbot of the monastery appealed against the destruction, he was beaten, and he and two other monks were threatened with imprisonment.

Images prior to the demolition, sent from Tibet clandestinely and at great risk, depict local people singing as they work on the building housing 16 monks’ cells in a tiny monastery that clings to a steep, wooded hillside. Two red Chinese flags are displayed, compulsory for monasteries in Tibet, while Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the breeze beside them. Now the monastery is empty, as all the monks were compelled to leave.

When mass demolitions and expulsions happened at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, the two world-famous Buddhist institutes also in the Tibetan area of Kham, footage emerged of nuns being herded into buses, weeping, in some cases collapsing in distress at being severed from their religious teachers and monastic life. A Tibetan at Larung Gar, a major center for thousands of Chinese as well as Tibetan Buddhists, wrote on social media:

[The destruction] feels like a scorching pain. These tiny hermitages were where we received transmissions and meditated. They can only accommodate our scriptures and bags of tsampa (roasted barley, traditional Tibetan food). As digging machines and people demolish the residences of nuns, the shadow of dust blocks the sun. Splintered wood and plastic water bottles lay scattered on the side of dust-filled hills.

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No such documentation exists of the closure and departure of the monastic population of less than 20 from Langdi monastery, one of a cluster of 18 such temples in Larong valley in Markham county, the Tibet Autonomous Region. And due to the total lockdown imposed across Tibet, even before COVID-19 struck, and the dangers for Tibetans of any communication with the outside world, no information is available of their fate and whether they may be subject to forced “re-education.”

Chamdo (also known as Qamdo or Changdu in Chinese), where the monastery is situated, is now the site of some of the county-level centers for detention and “re-education” where monks and nuns expelled from Larung Gar have been held, facing torture and harsh conditions. It is a part of Tibet where the crackdown has been extremely severe, described by the Chinese Communist Party as the “frontline” and “combat-ready” in the political “struggle against separatism.”

While not on the scale of the expulsion of thousands of monks and nuns from Larung Gar, Langdi monastery and other remote rural institutes in Tibet are critical to the survival of authentic Tibetan Buddhist religious and cultural identity against the forces of the Chinese Party-state threatening their evisceration.

And just as bulldozers wreaked destruction at Langdi, there is evidence that that the state has used the coronavirus pandemic to deepen its advance into the private and devotional lives of Tibetans.

Already, prior to the mass internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Tibet was used as a laboratory to try out oppressive new measures of total surveillance, an “iron grid” system of securitization and accelerated cultural assimilation in order to create compliant citizens and Party subjects. Under the leadership of soldier-turned-politician Chen Quanguo, Party chief of Tibet before being transferred to Xinjiang in 2016, Tibetan news sources were shut down and replaced by Community Party outlets with the aim of ensuring that “no voices and images of enemy forces and Dalai clique can be heard or seen.” Hundreds of thousands of Party cadres were sent to Tibet in a dramatic escalation of intrusive measures into the everyday lives of Tibetans, combined with tougher measures to eliminate the remaining influence of lamas and traditional leaders within Tibetan communities.

The coronavirus pandemic has enabled these strategies to be fully tested. Phone apps previously used to track Tibetans’ every movement were used for contract tracing, and measures to immediately cut communications other than those of the Party-state were used to immobilize Tawu (Chinese: Daofu), epicenter of the virus spread among Tibetan areas.

China chose a moment of escalating crisis over COVID-19 at the beginning of the year to deepen a disproportionate crackdown particularly in Tibetan border areas with a new political campaign of sending a “million police to 10 million homes.”

While the Dalai Lama received global coverage for his words of compassion over the impacts of coronavirus in Time magazine, in Tibet, people were punished by imprisonment for sending prayers on social media. One netizen who simply posted “No one in this pure land is safe” was punished with eight days of detention.

Just as Wuhan citizens were urged at the height of fear and devastation in their city to be grateful to Party leader Xi Jinping and to show “positive energy,” many Tibetan pupils returned to school last week to face lessons urging them to “love the country” (China) and to be loyal to the CCP. And when schools re-opened in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), the Tibetan area of Amdo where a wave of self-immolations began in 2009, officials said that from now on instruction in Tibetan classrooms will soon be given exclusively in Chinese, with the students’ mother tongue used only in special classes teaching Tibetan as a language.

While the battle against the virus itself is waning in Tibet, the lockdown and heavy-handed propaganda has intensified. Tibetans are asked to sacrifice everything for the Party in the name of “maintaining social stability,” a euphemism for the complete suppression of dissent and enforcement of policy,
in the fight against the virus. State media highlighted the efforts of the security apparatus of the state, rather than those of local doctors and nurses.

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From her high-rise apartment in Beijing, Tibetan writer and blogger Tsering Woeser, effectively subject to a double lockdown, given the normal restrictions imposed upon her, acknowledged how she was cautioned “not to speak out of turn” about “the Dalai Lama, Hong Kong, [or] the pandemic” by state security, with threats also conveyed to her friends. She concludes that “preventing speech is more important than preventing the plague.”

China has long treated Tibetans’ devotion to the Dalai Lama, and their peaceful expressions of religious identity, as a dangerous virus. Now a real deadly virus enabled the state to expand its scope and tighten its grip still further. From the darkness and silence that enveloped Tibet, only occasional glimpses emerge of resilience and solidarity; the courage of monks at a remote monastery to let the outside world know of the destruction of their home, an image on social media of butter-lamps burning in an unknown monastery, dedicated to whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang.

In a powerful cycle of “poems from the plague” published last week, Woeser writes this about the “virus” of tyranny: “No place exists that will not fall to the enemy/ No epidemic exists that is not terrifying/ No, there exists another plague far worse than this one.”

Kate Saunders is a writer, journalist, and author specializing in Tibet.