In Tibetan Monasteries, the Heavy Hand of the Party

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 6, 2008

BEIJING, April 5 -- Arjia Rinpoche was 47 years old and a senior Tibetan abbot when he first signed a document denouncing the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader.

It was 1997, and about 50 Communist Party workers had come to his monastery to conduct what is called a "patriotic education" campaign -- 45 days of instruction in the Chinese version of history and a requirement that all monks sign a document accepting Chinese rule in Tibet and rejecting the Dalai Lama as a "separatist." For many followers, that amounts to painful renunciation of their religion's central figure.

"It was not our wish, not our thought, but we don't have choices," Arjia said. "We have fear."

Such campaigns are now a standard feature of life in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries. They are one of many tools Chinese leaders use to tighten party control of a religion whose charismatic leader, the 72-year-old Dalai Lama, is revered in Tibet, respected around the world and viewed in Beijing as a threat to the party's supremacy.

After widespread protests swept the Tibetan plateau last month, Chinese leaders responded with a combination of arrests, interrogations and vigorous education campaigns. At least eight people were reportedly killed in a remote town in Sichuan province Thursday in a protest sparked by an attempt to force monks to participate in an education campaign.

Monasteries around the Tibetan capital of Lhasa remained closed for a fourth week, and a woman who answered the phone, but would not give her name, at Tibet's religious affairs bureau said that was because the monks were "taking some lessons."

For Tibetan Buddhists, the education campaigns undermine their core beliefs and are a hated humiliation. For the Chinese, the campaigns boil down to a simple loyalty oath.

"The government controls all the religions in China very tightly, such as Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity," said Kang Xiaoguang, a professor of regional economics and politics at Beijing's Renmin University. "The government doesn't only aim at Tibetan Buddhism. On the contrary, it makes greater concessions on Tibetan Buddhism than on other religions."

That perspective, along with the view that China has invested the equivalent of millions of dollars in Tibet's economic development, is the backbone of China's position that Tibet has been well-treated by Beijing. But monks say those who don't accept China's terms are stripped of their robes and permanently expelled from their monasteries. If they protest, monks say, they can be jailed and tortured.

Arjia, who fled to the United States in 1998, said that fate was well-known to the 700 monks from his community, Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai province on Tibet's border, when they gathered for a final meeting after 45 days of patriotic study.

The study sessions themselves had not been arduous, recalled Arjia, who had lived through China's harsh Cultural Revolution and spent 16 years in labor camps. In 1997, when the lessons about China's glories and the memorization of party slogans got too boring, party workers often killed time with monks, chatting about everyday problems. The workers were a little easier on the Kumbum monks because Arjia had been dealing with the Communists in an attempt to shield his monastery from more stringent political control. But now that the campaign was concluding, the workers needed signatures and testimonials to prove to their bosses that Kumbum was a "patriotic" monastery.

As abbot, Arjia recalled, he joined party officials sitting behind a table at the front of the hall. One by one, his monks were encouraged to stand up and read their thoughts about the lessons they had received. It was understood that they would follow the party line to avoid trouble.

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