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Panchen Politics: Can Beijing win Tibetan hearts?

By Tsering Tsomo, Phayul, March 23, 2010

“Everything we do, we do to ensure that the people live a happier life with more dignity and to make our society fairer and more harmonious.” - Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in his annual speech on March 4 at the opening of National People’s Congress in Beijing.

Lhasa, Tibet (China) -- A few days before, Wen’s government had appointed the 20-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu, the Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama, as one of the 13 new members of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the top advisory body to China’s parliament.

After becoming a CPPCC member, Norbu expressed a higher responsibility in his “mission of safeguarding national unity and ethnic solidarity"[Xinhua, March 5]. Norbu’s ascendance to CPPCC membership although viewed by some analysts as his coming-out-party on the much-politicized ethnic scene in the PRC, it is also a routine move symbolizing the “preferential treatment” of Tibetan minorities in the policy-making process of the one party state. Since 1950s, China has attempted to cultivate a support base of highly influential Tibetan spiritual leaders who are “loyal and patriotic” to the party.

In yet another move to raise the profile of Norbu, Beijing hosted in 2006 the first World Buddhist Forum where Norbu was one of the key speakers at the opening ceremony. Notwithstanding the dissonance of an atheist regime hosting a religious event, state media quoted Norbu as saying that Buddhism’s responsibility was “to foster patriotism and national unity”. On his second rare visit in 1999 to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas in Shigatse in Tibet Autonomous region (TAR), Xinhua reported that the then 9-year-old Norbu while performing a religious ceremony had “urged Tibetan Buddhists to obey the instructions of President Jiang Zemin and love the socialist Chinese motherland”.

For the past 14 years, Beijing has kept Norbu under strict watch; his movements restricted to areas in and around Beijing. As an 11-year-old, Norbu also visited Shanghai and Zhejiang provinces surrounded as always by a heavy posse of security guards and officials. He is often shown on state televisions meeting Chinese leaders and leading religious ceremonies. His education is confined to Beijing where a special school for “living Buddhas” (Beijing’s term for reincarnated religious leaders) called the China Advanced Institute of Tibetan Buddhism trains reincarnated Tibetan spiritual leaders. In 2000, People’s Daily reported the successful “education” of over 50 “living Buddhas” since 1978 in Beijing. In recent times, Beijing’s subtle sophisticated style of repression has seen a similar “living Buddha” school being built in Lhasa’s Chushul (Ch: Quishu) county. Last year, China’s state television CCTV beamed footages of Gyaltsen Norbu touring the school’s construction site.

The past 14 years also saw an aggressive and swaggering China rejecting all calls and appeals for information on the condition of Gedun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama following the Tibetan tradition of identifying a reincarnation. In 1995 three days after Nyima’s recognition, the 6-year-old boy along with his family went missing. Beijing later admitted that the boy was in “protective custody” without providing any corresponding evidence. Sustained inquiries from the international community led by none other than the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson failed to elicit any response from Beijing.

Official order bans Nyima’s pictures in Tibet. But Tibetans still discuss in hushed tone the fate of Nyima while watching in stunned amusement the spectacle surrounding Norbu, also called “Jiang Zemin’s Panchen” or “Gya (Chinese) Panchen” by the Tibetans. (Norbu is Tibetan.) In Tibet, for instance, the ubiquitous music videos of Tibetan singers do not feature portraits of Beijing’s Panchen; the defiance is obvious given the fact that most Tibetan singers commonly prefer showing pictures of their root lamas in videos. Instead they show the previous 10th Panchen’s pictures.

With the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse reduced to a venue for political gimmicks and the real Panchen still in Chinese custody, the Tibetan exiles have built a Tashi Lhunpo in exile located in Bylakkuppe Tibetan settlement in south India. In 2008 when Nyima turned 18 the abbot of the exile Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tseten, told the India-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD): “at this stage in his studies, the Panchen Lama should have completed or be near completion of the second of the five major subjects of Tibetan Buddhism known as Madhyamarg (the Middle Way), in addition to texts on the Perfection of Wisdom.” With his “disappearance”, the Panchen Lama cannot receive oral transmissions and other trainings crucial to the comprehensive development of this very important lineage system in Tibetan Buddhism.

The system of reincarnation is one of the core beliefs of Tibetan religious tradition. Tibetans believe that the reincarnated lamas as lineage holders are the key to the survival of Tibetan religion and belief systems; they have ensured the continuity of Tibetan Buddhism over thousands of years. Chinese imposition of its own Panchen Lama violates this core belief system. It also paves way for more politicized reincarnations including the Dalai Lama and endangers the essence of Tibetan religion not to mention the prolonged religious strife it could trigger in future. Without the real Panchen Lama in the Tibetan firmament, there has formed a void that slowly eats at the core of Tibetan faith and by extension their culture, value system, their distinctive existence as a people deserving of freedom to be who they are. The consequences are beyond religious.

Aware of the close link between religion and Tibetan identity, China has from the beginning targeted Tibetan Buddhism. In the 1950s, monasteries, temples and sacred scriptures and artifacts were destroyed; and monks and nuns were subjected to violent physical and ideological attacks. The Cultural Revolution snuffed out what remained of the destruction wrought by the so-called democratic reforms in 1950s. As far back in 1962, even before the Cultural Revolution hurricane, the previous 10th Panchen Lama, as vice-chairman of CPPCC expressed concerns over the fate of Tibetan Buddhism: ‘Those who have religious knowledge will slowly die out, religious affairs are stagnating, knowledge is not being passed on, there is worry about there being no training for new people, and so we see the elimination of Buddhism, which was flourishing in Tibet and which transmitted teachings and enlightenment. This is something which I and more than 90% of Tibetans cannot endure.”

Today the spiritual heads of four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the indigenous Bon religion are in exile. They are not in “self-imposed” exile as Beijing would like us to believe. They were driven out of their land, forced to seek another space to freely revive their faith and culture. Lack of highly educated religious teachers is often cited as one of the main reasons why many Tibetan monks and nuns leave Tibet for exile. The continued devotion and loyalty to the Dalai Lama among Tibetans in and outside Tibet has spurred Beijing to introduce various measures cloaked in legal terms to undermine his authority and annihilate traditional mores of Tibetan Buddhism. Because the Dalai Lama is a powerful symbol of Tibetan religious and cultural identity, Beijing has since the 1990s officially sanctioned widespread denunciation campaigns against the Tibetan leader in and outside Tibet.

In Tibet, religion has been so highly politicized that even routine repair of monastic buildings needs official approval. The fair-sounding Democratic Management Committees (DMCs) established since 1950s in every big and small monastery and temple act as the ears and the eyes of the party. Members to DMCs are partly elected and partly appointed by Bureau of Religious Affairs. Beijing says DMC “receives guidance and support from relevant government departments in charge of religious affairs” [100 Questions on Tibet, Beijing Review, 1989]. In addition to living under surveillance, monks and nuns have to attend political indoctrination classes where they are taught by “work teams” to pledge their allegiance to the party and denounce the Dalai Lama. Special handbooks on “anti-splittism”, “education on policy on religion”, etc, are distributed at these “patriotic re-education” classes. Some classes last for weeks and some for months but nobody can complain over the disruption of normal religious classes and the psychological pressure borne by monks and nuns. Denouncing the Dalai Lama in speech and writing required in such brainwashing process represents for the deeply devout Tibetans the highest act of blasphemy. These “work teams” functions under “patriotic associations” which is supervised by State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) and the Communist Party’s United Front Department. SARA is a department directly under the State Council, the top decision making body in PRC.

Reports have surfaced in recent years of monks succumbing to suicides in the aftermath of political indoctrination classes. In a June 2009 report submitted to UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, TCHRD listed 17 known cases of suicides and two cases of attempted suicide since Mar. 2008 among monks and nuns. Many flee into exile to avoid this psychological torture.

On his arrival in exile in the United States, the former abbot of Kumbum Monastery, Arjia Rinpoche said: “Had I remained in Tibet I would have been forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and my religion and to serve the Chinese government. This also meant participating in government practices that went against my religion and personal beliefs. As Abbot of the Kumbum Monastery, I would have been forced to help the government have its choice of the Panchen Lama accepted by the Tibetan people. This would violate my deepest beliefs. It was at this point that I knew I must leave my country.”

In 1998, after hearing Beijing’s plan to make him the tutor of Gyaltsen Norbu, Arjia Rinpoche decided to escape. "My political life was betraying my religious and moral principles", he wrote in his recently-released memoir Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan lama's account of 40 years under Chinese rule.

Monks and nuns are also the first to be targeted under the “Strike Hard” campaign, a so-called anti-crime drive used in Tibet to root out unpatriotic political elements. The crackdown on Tibetan Buddhism was officially endorsed at the 1994 Third Work Forum. Campaigns of political indoctrination and atheism were intensified not only in religious institutions but also among lay people in remote farming and herding areas. Textbooks such as “A Reader for Advocating Science and Technology and Doing Away with Superstitions” were issued by the Propaganda Department of the CCP to remove the influence of religion. In Aug. 2006, Zhang Qingli, the TAR party secretary told Der Spiegel: “We are organizing patriotic education everywhere, not just in the monasteries.”

In 2000, religion was identified as a key element of Tibetan identity by Li Dezhu, head of Ethnic Affairs Commission who saw it as an obstacle to stability and development in Tibet. Li also wrote a “textbook on destroying independent cultures and disintegrating religious minorities by promoting materialism”. [Times Online, UK, March 28, 2008]. In a 2007 article published in a party journal, the “party’s racial theoretician”, as Li is often known, also called for an end to preserving minority cultures and instead suggested to refashion them.

In Tibetan society, spiritual leaders have traditionally commanded deep respect and devotion among the masses. Lacking legitimacy in the eyes of Tibetans, the authorities often seek help from influential spiritual leaders to mediate disputes or enforce law and order. Many of them are involved in philanthropic activities in their communities in addition to guiding lives and giving solace to a vast majority of people. Beijing resents this parallel moral authority wielded by highly-revered religious leaders whose influence both legitimizes and delegitimizes Chinese rule in Tibet.

Document 19 that guides the overall religious policy in PRC does not allow religion in public sphere and therefore criminalizes traditional forms of religion particularly in Tibet where religion is intricately linked to both social and personal sphere. It also poses problems for the socially-active religious leaders in Tibet.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche is a typical case. Once a highly-revered Buddhist leader in Lithang in eastern Tibet, Delek is now serving life in prison on false charges of “exploding bombs and distributing separatist leaflets.” In 2002, he was arrested and sentenced to death which was later commuted to life in prison. He was a great philanthropist; a fearless advocate for environmental conservation; and a respected mediator between Tibetans and Chinese. Last December, another Buddhist leader from Kardze in Sichuan province, Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for “illegal possession of weapons and ammunition and misappropriation of government-owned buildings.” The two Chinese lawyers who initially represented Phurbu Rinpoche said the charges lacked “factual clarity and sufficient evidence.”

As necessity leads to innovation, some spiritual leaders to avoid official interference had tried to build new monastic encampments called gars that are different from large traditional monasteries. Traditional monasteries especially those built before 1959 normally attract more attention from the “re-education” officials. But gars met with the same tragedy: in 2001, over 1,000 monastic quarters at the famous Larung Gar religious institute in Sichuan province were demolished and nuns and monks were evicted despite resistance. Founded by the highly charismatic teacher Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, at its peak over 10,000 monks and nuns including nearly a thousand Chinese students studied there. Soon after, Khenpo Jig-Phun died due to complications likely connected to the pressure and shock of the crackdown. The same year authorities destroyed monastic dwellings at Yachen Gar in Payul (Ch: Baiyu) county in Sichuan expelling students including about 1,000 Chinese-speaking students from China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.

In 2007, decades of religious repression reached its nadir with the passage of “Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism” that established in legal terms the absolute authority of Communist Party of China in identifying and selecting Tibetan reincarnations. Every process related to reincarnation including the enthronement, education and religious training is under party’s supervision. A reincarnation without the approval of the party is “illegal” and “invalid”. This law only formalized what has been around for decades and is a major move by the authorities to “normalize” Tibetan Buddhism. The 2007 law was not only an attempt to legitimize Beijing’s Panchen – who was close to his 18th birthday when it was passed - but it provides Beijing a “legal” means to justify and validate future interferences.

The hope however lies in the sheer devotion for Gedun Choekyi Nyima and his predecessor the 10th Panchen Lama among Tibetans across generations. The previous 10th Panchen Lama was known for his courage and outspokenness against Chinese policies in Tibet. His famous 70,000 character petition, a damning indictment of Chinese rule in Tibet, and various other speeches are being read by a younger generation of Tibetans. Commenting on the significance of the 1962 petition, the late Tibetan historian Prof. Dawa Norbu wrote, “No Chinese (with the possible exception of Peng Dehuai), and certainly no other leader of a national minority, had dared to challenge Communist policies so fundamentally within the PRC since its founding in 1949, as the Panchen Lama did in 1962 and 1987.”

In his last speech in 1989 in Shigatse, the previous Panchen Lama called for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to collaborate with him in devising Tibet policy (At the time, he was accompanied by the then TAR party secretary Hu Jintao). Around same time, in an article in a Chinese daily, he wrote that the price paid by Tibet under Chinese rule had been greater than the gains. Three days after the speech, he died leaving behind a string of questions on circumstances leading to his sudden death. He was only 51.

The hope also lies in the precedents set by the life and work of the previous 10th Panchen Lama. He made it difficult for Beijing to create a wedge between the institutions of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. He proved that repression and political indoctrination are weak and foolish strategies to win Tibetan hearts. It is true happiness is relative. But it is indisputable that real happiness springs from the heart and when the heart is inflicted with repeated wounds, happiness remains an elusive dream.

Perhaps Wen has a different definition of happiness.

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