Visitors to Tibet often remark on the apparent freedom of religious practice. Prayer flags flutter on the tops of buildings, every home has an altar and Tibetans can openly show their devotion to Buddhism. But despite the apparent signs of religious freedom the Chinese Communist Party remains fundamentally hostile to religion. And as many monks and nuns will testify, voicing opposition to Chinese rule, no matter how peacefully, can result in torture and sometimes death.
Underlying Chinese Communist Party policy on religion is a commitment to the "natural withering away" of religion. The guidelines 'Concerning our Country's Basic Standpoint and Policy on Religious Questions' (1982) set out a "magnificent goal" for Party members: "an era when all the various religious expressions of the actual world finally disappear." The practice of religion in Tibet is subject to strict controls within carefully prescribed limits (Defying the Dragon, Lawasia & Tibet Information Network TIN, March 1991). It is these controls, promoted in two principal ways, which are destroying the richness of Tibetan Buddhism. which is an integral part of Tibetan society..
In the administration of monasteries, the Chinese authorities have attempted to destroy the relationship between monastic institutions and the community - a relationship which is central to Tibetan society. The idea of religion and nationhood is so connected that an erosion of Buddhism leads to an erosion of the Tibetans' sense of identity.
Although some rites of Tibetan Buddhism are tolerated, the philosophical foundation, formerly taught in monastic universities, is also under threat. There are severe restrictions on teaching and conducting initiations - both of which are vital for public access to religion.
Chinese policy on religion in Tibet over the last 30 years can be divided into five periods:
1950-59: Religion was officially endorsed in the 1954 Constitution, but religious activity was strictly controlled through state-run associations.
1959-66: China consolidated its hold on Tibet monasteries were targeted as the backbone of Tibetan society. By 1966, before the Cultural Revolution began, 80% of central Tibet's 2,700 monasteries had been destroyed. Only 6,900 monks and nuns remained, of the original 115,600 monks and 1,600 "living buddhas" (TAR Vice-Chairman Buchung Tsering, 1987). In 1960, the International Commission of Jurists found that: "acts of genocide had been committed in Tibet in an attempt to destroy the Tibetans as a religious group."
1966-77: During the Cultural Revolution, all religious activity was banned; religious institutions were razed; texts and sacred objects destroyed; monks and nuns imprisoned and tortured; many were killed. By 1978, only eight monasteries were left standing, and 970 monks and nuns remained in the TAR.
1977-86: In 1977, some religious activities were allowed. The Panchen Lama was released from detention in 1978 and in 1979 the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa was opened. Liberalisation policies were initiated by Hu Yaobang in 1980. Money was allocated for rebuilding monasteries and in 1986, the Monlam prayer festival was celebrated for the first time in 20 years. The period between 1983 and 1987 was one of rapid growth for monasteries and nunneries. Many were able to increase their size with little government interference. Garu Nunnery, for example, increased from 20 nuns in 1985 to about 130 in 1987.
The Institute for Studying Buddhism at Nechung was opened by the authorities in the early-1980s, but it is reported that there is a shortage of teachers, teaching is sub-standard and selection involves political screening.
1987-93: Demonstrations in 1987 resulted in a security crackdown on major monasteries. About half a dozen monks were expelled from major monasteries in the Lhasa region in October 1988 and more than 200 monks and nuns were expelled between December 1989 and April 1990. Unrest has been attributed by Party hardliners to laxity towards religious activities (Tibet Daily, 07/08/89) and what is being witnessed now is a conservative backlash from the Chinese authorities. These accusations have been accompanied by efforts to reassert central policies and limit the role of religious bodies. The government has also stepped up its attack on monks and nuns who have expressed, even peacefully, any political opposition to Chinese rule in Tibet. Large numbers of monks and nuns involved in peaceful protests have been detained without trial. Many have been released after four to nine months, but in most cases had been severely tortured. Others remain in jail.
Reports have been received of monks being sent to China for re-education. The authorities have also stepped up their political re-education campaigns at monastic institutions, especially since the unrest in Lhasa in May 1993. In July 1993, a work team moved into Garu Nunnery, a centre of pro-independence activity since 19 December 1987, as part of what unofficial sources in Lhasa believed to be a crackdown on Buddhist nuns (TIN News Update, 20/07/93).
Practitioners of religion cannot be Party members, which affects access to housing and employment as well as political influence (Tibet Daily, 24/09/90). Under Article 36 of the Constitution of the PRC (1982), religious ritual, festivals and meetings can be banned on grounds of disrupting social order. Religious education is banned from schools.
The head of the monastery is appointed by the Religious Affairs Bureau, a state-run body founded in 1952. The Chinese authorities appoint a Democratic Committee for Monastic Affairs within each monastery, which acts as a liaison group with the local government.
Monks are examined for political correctness and trained under Party supervision. They must not have been involved in "unpatriotic" activities. The authorities also set up work teams to control the political education of monastic institutions while also encouraging monks and nuns, especially the younger ones, to spy on their colleagues (TIN News Update, 17/08/90).
A document on religious policy in Ganze, formerly part of Kham, states that the ban on monks and nuns below the age of 18 has been ignored and should be re-enforced (Strengthening National Unity and Preserving the Unity of the Motherland, Ganze Prefecture Propaganda Committee, 1990).
Discovery of new incarnations is controlled and in certain cases has been proscribed by the authorities. The search for the incarnation of the Panchen Lama is to be conducted along lines defined by the Constitution of the PRC.
It is reported that in some monasteries, the financial arrangements are controlled by the Religious Affairs Bureau, and funds given to the monastery are required to be paid directly into a bank account administered solely by the RAB. According to witness reports, permission is usually required when a temple, or even a statue, is to be restored. Monasteries given state funds to be restored tend to be those on the tourist route. Tibetans claim that others have been built with private funds and donated labour. In rural areas reconstruction is discouraged.
The Party Guidelines on religion state that no contact with overseas religious organisations is tolerated, rendering communication with Dharamsala unlawful. Showing devotion to the Dalai Lama can be construed as maintaining links with separatist organisations. This has been gradually relaxed since the lifting of martial law. Two monks were sentenced to five years imprisonment in September 1989, charged with spying for the Dalai Lama, and accused of starting riots under instructions from Dharamsala. (Radio Lhasa, 23/08/89). Four monks received sentences of up to 15 years each in November 1989.
Under Article 99 of the Chinese Criminal Law, heavy penalties can be exacted for the use of "feudal superstition and superstitious sects" to "carry on counter-revolutionary activities." The distinction between superstition and religion is left unclear, and the ban on superstition can be applied to religious practices.
A campaign launched in 1989 to eliminate the "six evils" including "using feudal and superstitious beliefs to swindle and harm people", is liable to be used to facilitate the arrest of religious figures considered to be leading political dissent.
All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Here the term Tibet is used to refer to the three original provinces of U'Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U'Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965). In 1949 the other two provinces, Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.