Arjia Rinpoche, the highest Tibetan official to have fled China, said during a talk delivered at ICT’s offices in Washington, DC, on August 16 that the new emphasis on patriotic education in monasteries across Tibet is part of a longstanding attempt by China to assert control over Tibetan Buddhism.

Arjia Rimpoche said that Hu Jintao himself was instrumental in creating the political and legislative framework which would eventually give rise in the mid-1990s to the current system of “patriotic education.” He described this as an attempt to control the Tibetan people, as well as serving the Chinese authorities’ political agenda of ‘hijacking’ Tibetan Buddhism and the system of reincarnation to support China’s administration of Tibet.

The former abbot of Kumbum Monastery in Tibet, Arjia Rimpoche now serves as Director of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana. His talk at ICT on ‘Understanding China’s “Patriotic Education” Campaign in Tibet’ was part of ICT’s ongoing lecture series featuring Chinese and Tibetan scholars.

Drawing heavily upon his own experiences of China’s political extremism in Tibet from the invasion of 1950 through to the present day, Arjia Rinpoche gave an overview of how “political study” – the precursor to “patriotic education” – was aimed at annihilating Tibetan Buddhism, primarily by means of banning and condemning its unique system of reincarnation.

Arjia Rinpoche described his experiences of forced labor in Tibet along with hundreds of other monks, and described also – referring frequently to his upcoming autobiography – the other impacts of the Cultural Revolution upon the institutions of Tibetan Buddhism. He was then ‘rehabilitated’ in the early 1980s and allowed to return to his former clerical positions, as well as being appointed to a political advisory body which enabled him to represent Tibetans’ concerns in China’s political and legislative arenas, a position in which he worked closely with the 10th Panchen Lama.

However, this period of relative political liberalization in Tibet came to an end in the late 1980s with a series of protests centered in Lhasa. Despite Arjia Rinpoche urging the Chinese government to address the grievances which had given rise to the protests, the authorities – led in the Tibet Autonomous Region at the time by Hu Jintao – instead implemented a sweeping security crackdown, imprisoning and torturing thousands of people.

Arjia Rinpoche said during his talk at ICT he had attempted to convince the Chinese authorities that patriotic education campaigns in Tibet would only make the Tibetan people less trusting of the Chinese leadership. He said there were other possible systems which could be based on existing concepts of discipline in Tibet’s monasteries and Tibetan society, and which would be better suited to Tibetan culture and traditions as a means of ensuring stability in Tibet.

Arjia Rinpoche eventually felt compelled to leave Tibet in the late 1990s when the Chinese authorities insisted he act as tutor for the Chinese government’s choice of 11th Panchen Lama – the 10th Panchen Lama had passed away in early 1989 and the government excluded the Dalai Lama from the final decision-making process for recognizing his reincarnation, a role that successive Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas have traditionally played for each other over the centuries.

In response to a question about a letter he wrote to then President Jiang Zemin after he sought asylum in the United States, Arjia Rinpoche said that during his first audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he was advised by the Dalai Lama to try to maintain a good relationship with the PRC leadership. Arjia Rinpoche duly wrote a general letter to President Jiang; however, the response he received was a hand-written poem by President Jiang about how wonderful Kumbum monastery was, which he took to mean that he should return to Tibet.

Arjia Rinpoche added that he had also written to President Hu Jintao, but has had no response, and supposes that the United Front Work Department – the Party body which coordinates the Chinese government’s handling of Tibetan exiles – may not have forwarded the letter to President Hu Jintao.