• Discussions on an experimental and less hostile policy towards the Dalai Lama appear to have been shut down in the Tibetan area of Tsolho, Qinghai, amid a backdrop of tightening repression in eastern Tibet following a visit by one of China’s top leaders Yu Zhengsheng. The new developments appear to reflect the authorities’ fears over the erosion of their authority as self-immolations continue – most recently an 18-year old monk in Dzoege on July 20 – and as Tibetans take bolder steps to affirm their religious and cultural identity.
  • Official notices have been issued in at least two areas emphasizing the Chinese government’s hardline policies against the Dalai Lama, and warning Tibetans that pictures of the Dalai Lama will not be allowed in monasteries. Radio Free Asia also reported searches for Dalai Lama images in people’s cars in the Yushu area of Qinghai. This follows reports of quiet discussions in Tsolho proposing a more nuanced approach to the aggressive campaign against the exiled religious leader that is linked to the self-immolations and is a cause of widespread anguish among Tibetans.
  • A major religious ceremony, the Kalachakra, in Gepasumdo (Chinese: Tongde) county, Tsolho, was prevented by the authorities last week (July 20). Local people had raised hundreds of thousands of yuan for the Kalachakra, which involved five major monasteries. Some Chinese Buddhists had also travelled to the area for the teachings, which were presided over by a respected elderly Tibetan lama. The ceremony was closed down by the local authorities after three days.
  • In Gansu, official celebrations for the 60th anniversary of Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (part of the Tibetan area of Amdo) excluded Tibetans and appeared to take the form of a military drill, with images in the state media depicting massed ranks of troops and banners held by lines of uniformed police bearing the message of a ‘peaceful’ Kanlho.
  • The new developments follow an incident on July 6 in Tawu, Sichuan, in which at least 10 Tibetans were severely injured after police opened fire at a crowd gathered to peacefully celebrate the 78th birthday of the Dalai Lama (ICT report, Tibetan monks shot as police open fire on Tibetans praying on Dalai Lama’s birthday).

[nggallery id=6](Click image to view slideshow)

The developments in the Tibetan area of Amdo outlined in this report represent a backward step by the authorities following the indications of moderate debate on China’s Tibet policy in recent weeks. While no shift in the tough policies on Tibet has been observed, there is evidence that policy analysts, scholars, Tibetan religious figures and others in the PRC have drawn attention to the counter-productive nature of oppressive measures and the high levels of security presence in Tibet.

Following the visit of one of China’s top leaders, Yu Zhengsheng, to Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture earlier this month, the Chinese government’s hardline policies against the Dalai Lama were emphasized in published statements by officials in Tsolho (Chinese: Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Golok (Chinese: Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai (in the Tibetan area of Amdo). The notices warned of penalties for spreading ‘rumors’ about Dalai Lama pictures being allowed.

Yu Zhengsheng, who is on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, visited Labrang monastery during his July visit. He reiterated the official line when he called for “An absolute fight against the Dalai Lama clique in order to realize national unification and Tibetan regions’ development and stability.” (People’s Daily, Yu Zhengsheng stresses stability in Tibetan regions – July 9). In January, Yu Zhengsheng had visited Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) in Sichuan, in the Tibetan area of Kham, where he had stressed the importance of ‘patriotism’ (meaning allegiance to the Chinese state) among monks (Xinhua, Chinese official stresses patriotism among monks) and called for Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to socialism, a central message of the leadership’s stated policies on religion in Tibet.

Yu Zhengsheng’s visit to Kanlho came at a time when Tibetans’ commitment to protect their religious identity and core values of their culture is increasingly evident. Low-key but assertive celebrations of the birthday of the Dalai Lama on July 6 occurred in several Tibetan areas, with the Dalai Lama’s picture being displayed prominently, despite the intimidating presence of high numbers of armed troops. A Kalachakra held in Dzoege (Chinese: Ruo’ergai), Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan (in the Tibetan area of Amdo), in June attracted thousands of Tibetans.[1]

Meanwhile in Tawu (Chinese: Daofu), a Tibetan town in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, monks and lamas from more than 50 monasteries gathered for an inter-monastic debate and teaching at Nyitso monastery, displaying a large image of the Dalai Lama (ICT report including pictures, Tibetan nun dies after self-immolation near monastery hosting major religious teaching).[2]

The authorities have now sought to send a strong message that they are enforcing the ‘unwavering’ policy of ‘anti-splittism’. Pictures of officials and Tibetan monks at a meeting to study Yu Zhengsheng’s speech in Tsolho were posted on websites in Amdo last week in the Tibetan language, indicating the statements were aimed at a Tibetan audience. According to the article, officials at the meeting asserted that pictures of the Dalai Lama would not be displayed in monasteries in Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and that they would seek to ‘sincerely follow’ the leadership’s policies in order to ‘unite the nationalities’. (http://www.amdotibet.cn/html/dt/sszz/2013-07/14866.html).

The meeting followed news of discussions in Tsolho about proposals to display portraits of the Dalai Lama, end denunciation of the Tibetan leader, and lessen police presence in monasteries (ICT report, New challenges to Tibet policy from inside China – June 27, 2013). This indicated that an experimental approach, possibly to lessen tensions in the area, was being considered at a local level. It now appears that the discussions have been shut down, possibly as a result of a directive from the central authorities enforcing compliance at a local level. It is not known if international media reports about the possibility of a ‘softer’ approach were a factor in drawing Beijing’s attention to these developments and compelling local officials to reiterate the Party line more forcefully.

In Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a strongly-worded notice in Tibetan was issued by the local authorities on July 11. The notice, translated from Tibetan into English by ICT, reads: “Currently, there is this type of rumor that is being circulated in the society: the Central Government is having a new policy in Tibetan areas. It talks about having the freedom to venerate the Dalai Lama’s portraits, and so on. It is improper for the broader community of believers and the clergy to believe in such rumors.” Using a term referring to the ‘Strike Hard’ campaign, which in Tibet often involves severe penalties for political dissent, the notice warns: “Those criminals who intentionally spread false rumors and create confusion will be interrogated and will be struck hard.”

The language indicates that some Tibetans may be singled out for punishment if they are suspected of making attempts to promote a more moderate approach to the Dalai Lama.

As news emerged of the notices, Radio Free Asia reported new restrictions in Yulshul or Kyegudo (Chinese: Yushu), Qinghai on the display of photos of the Dalai Lama, including searching personal vehicles and beating and detaining those who resist the photos’ confiscation. Citing a senior and unnamed Tibetan religious figure, Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan service reported: “On July 15, the police were stopping all vehicles in the Yulshul [in Chinese, Yushu] area and checking for photos of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa. […] Photos of Buddhist protector deities were also confiscated,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Those who tried to resist were severely beaten up,” he said. (RFA, New Crackdown by China on Dalai Lama Photos – July 22, 2013).

Bhuchung Tsering, Interim President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Both the official warnings and the news from some Tibetan areas on the searches for Dalai Lama photographs represent a retrograde step by the authorities and are likely to exacerbate tensions. The Chinese leadership is following a dangerous path if it continues to present a shortsighted choice to the Tibetan people of either choosing the Dalai Lama or choosing the People’s Republic of China.”

Unlike in the Tibet Autonomous Region, images of the Dalai Lama have often been seen in the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo over the past few years. The new developments could indicate that in some Tibetan areas of Qinghai a new cycle of repression is underway with respect to anti-Dalai Lama policy, consistent with policy implementation in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The 1994 Third Tibet Work Forum, a major policy meeting, led to prohibitions on the possession of Dalai Lama photographs and other religious symbols by Party members. The extent of the ban and whom it should be applied to was ambiguous; partially in order to increase its intimidating effect, and implementation was erratic. But in principle Dalai Lama pictures cannot be displayed in any government office or accommodation and today, virtually no images of the Dalai Lama are on public display in the Tibet Autonomous Region, although they are still kept in private homes.

There is a direct correlation between the self-immolations and an intensified campaign against the Dalai Lama in Tibet together with the aggressive expansion of legal measures tightening state control over Tibetan religion and culture. This has been particularly evident following the imposition of increasingly restrictive measures in the eastern Tibetan areas of Amdo and Kham, where most of the self-immolations have occurred.

Virtually all the 121 Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 have called for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return home. (Self-Immolations by Tibetans and ICT report, ‘Storm in the Grasslands’).

Kalachakra teaching prevented in Tsolho

A major Buddhist ceremony, the Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) initiation, that had brought together hundreds of Tibetans and some Chinese devotees was cancelled by the authorities last week in Gepasumdo (Chinese: Tongde) county, Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai.

More than a thousand Tibetans had travelled to the area to attend the empowerment, bestowed by a respected Tibetan lama, Lobsang Choekyi Nyima from Drakkar monastery. Preparations had been intense over many months; according to one Tibetan source, local people had raised around 300,000 yuan ($48,000) for the ceremony. Preparation of the Kalachakra sand mandala had to be abandoned.

The ceremony began on July 17, and on the first day, a large number of troops were deployed in the area. Senior local officials then met with the organizers and gave instructions that the teaching must be stopped. The Tibetan lama who had been requested by local Tibetans to preside over the ceremony was allowed to give teachings for a second and third day, but then Tibetans had to return to their home areas.

A Kalachakra empowerment, which is one of the principal tantric practices found in Tibetan Buddhism, generally lasts for several days. Not every Tibetan lama has the spiritual authority to bestow this complex empowerment.

The Tibetan lama presiding over the cancelled ceremony in Gepasumdo, Lobsang Choekyi Nyima, is in his early nineties. He had spent many years in prison during the Cultural Revolution and was later close to the 10th Panchen Lama. Local people had been requesting him for some time to bestow the Kalachakra empowerment.

Monks and laypeople in Gepasumdo participated in one of the early demonstrations in Tibet in 2008, on March 16. In an incident that may have been connected, on April 14, 2008, People’s Armed Police ransacked the residences of monks of Tsang Monastery in Gepasumdo and confiscated pictures of the Dalai Lama, according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. (Phayul, China launches renewed “Patriotic Education” Campaign across all sections in Tibet – April 24, 2008).

Display of military force to demonstrate ‘peaceful’ anniversary of Kanlho

The authorities gave a display of military force and excluded local Tibetans from celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province. Images posted online depicted massed ranks of troops and banners held by lines of uniformed police that appeared to contradict the message of a peaceful Kanlho. The anniversary was celebrated following Yu Zhengsheng’s visit to the area.

According to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) based in Dharamsala, India, local Tibetans were barred from attending the official celebration of Kanlho’s foundation as an Autonomous Prefecture (CTA, Tibetans Barred from Attending 60th Anniversary Celebration of Kanlho Prefecture). The Tibetan exile authorities reported that: “Ironically, [the celebration] was held to depict the development and prosperity of Tibetans under the Chinese government in the last 60 years.” A Tibetan resident of the area was quoted in the same report as saying, “Our presence at the celebration was deemed as a threat to social security and harmony, so we have been ordered by the local authorities not to attend the celebration.”

Images received from Kanlho depict massed ranks of police surrounding the venue of the official celebration. (ICT blog, Celebrating Kanlho – July 21).

Labrang Tashikyil monastery in Kanlho, visited by Yu Zhengsheng this month, is one of the largest in Tibet. It has also been a venue of Tibetan protest against Chinese rule in recent years, mostly by local monks and nuns. In rural areas in the region, there has also been tension over military appropriation of pastureland and official settlement of herders since 2004/5.

Labrang monks led a crowd that grew into thousands of local people on a pro-independence demonstration in Sangchu (Chinese: Xiahe) county on March 14, 2008, the same day that a Lhasa protest escalated into violence (ICT report, ‘Tibet at a Turning Point‘). This was the first major signal that the protests were to spread right across Tibet, apparently taking the Chinese authorities by surprise. Over the following three days there were multiple protests in rural areas of Sangchu county and by students in the prefectural town of Tsoe (Chinese: Hezuo).

Most recently Kanlho has been the site of more than two dozen self-immolations, ranging from teenage students to a young mother and the elderly grandfather of a reincarnate lama.

Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (incorporated into China’s Gansu Province) comprises the counties of Sangchu (Chinese: Xiahe), Machu (Chinese: Maqu), Luchu (Chinese: Luqu), Drukchu (Zhugqu), Tewo (Diebu), Lintan/Lenthang, also known as Batse and Chone (Zhuoni) in its jurisdiction. Tsoe township (county-level) is the prefectural capital. Last year the Chinese authorities issued a notice barring Tibetans from setting themselves on fire and deployed hundreds of armed forces during a recently concluded horse racing festival in Machu, Kanlho (Phayul, Fearing protests, China issues notice barring self-immolations at horse racing festival).

‘Rumors’ of veneration of Dalai Lama images

A translation from Tibetan of the notice issued by officials in Golok is included in full below. While asserting the importance of the ‘struggle against the Dalai Lama group’, the notice says: “The entire community of believers and clergy all over the prefecture should separate itself politically from the 14th incarnation of the Dalai, and, in real terms, resolutely oppose secession of the country, sabotage of the rule of the Party and of the socialist system.”

This could be interpreted as being consistent with moderate views that have been put forward by some Tibetans. For instance, according to unofficial sources, Tibetans at meetings in Tsolho made the same distinction, even though it would be difficult to implement in practice as follows: “In terms of religion, the 14th Dalai Lama can be revered, respected and followed. However, in terms of politics, he cannot be followed; religion and politics need to be separated.”

Chinese Professor Jin Wei from the Central Party School in Beijing also referred to the need to ‘de-politicise’ Tibetan Buddhism in an important interview published in Hong Kong earlier last month (Interview for Asia Weekly on June 9, 2013, ‘Beijing Expert: Resume Negotiations to Resolve the Tibet Issue’). Saying that it is a mistake to treat religious and nationalities issues as ‘political’ ones, Professor Jin Wei indicates that former Party Secretaries and officials in Tibet have aggravated the situation in Tibet by treating religious or nationality issues as ‘political’. (Full translation and analysis at: New challenges to Tibet policy from inside China).

Following her close study of Tibet, Jin Wei acknowledged the importance of both Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama to the Tibetan people and referred to the need for the Chinese leadership to: “Untangle religion and politics; carefully judge the psychological needs of the Tibetan people. Tibetan people have been influenced by religion for thousands of years, forming a ‘heavily spiritual and light on materialism, heavy on the next life and light on this life’ national identity. This is a huge difference with the main nationality of China, the Han. As the ruling Communist Party of China, it is necessary to understand this clearly.”

Jin Wei’s critique of the way that religious and other issues has been handled was made in a much more direct manner than has previously been expressed by scholars in Party organizations, and indicates that even while there may be a hardline backlash against her comments, a level of moderate debate on Tibet policy exists even if only among scholars and those close to the leadership rather than the Politburo itself.

Notice Regarding Not Listening to Rumors

(translated from Tibetan into English by ICT)

To all monasteries and the broader community of believers all over the prefecture.

Currently, there is this type of rumor that is being circulated in society: the central government has a new policy in Tibetan areas. It talks about having the freedom to venerate the Dalai Lama’s portraits, and so on. It is improper for the broader community of believers and the clergy to believe in such rumors.

In order for the monasteries to be peaceful and stable, we have issued the following notice, regarding not listening to rumors, to every monastery and the broader community of believers all over the prefecture, as per the relevant policies and desire of the central, provincial and prefectural committees.

The policies of the central and provincial party committees on the Dalai group are consistent, stable, and clear. When the Chairman of the National Chinese People’s Political Conference, Yu Zhengsheng, went to investigate the situation in Kanlho area, he said: The 14th incarnation of Dalai is always engaged in secessionist activities that runs against not only the common interests of people of various ethnic groups, but also against the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The so-called Middle Way to achieve high-degree autonomy in Greater Tibet totally conflicts with China’s Constitution and China’s system of regional ethnic autonomy.

Our struggle against the Dalai group is not just about believing or not believing in religion, about being autonomous or not, but is an important political struggle for the preservation of the unity of the country and against the separation of nationalities.

The entire community of believers and clergy in the prefecture should separate themselves politically from the 14th incarnation of the Dalai, and, in real terms, resolutely oppose secession of the country, sabotage of the rule of the Party and of the socialist system.

The monasteries should make an effort on the management of the colleges under their administration, obey both the religious regulations as well as the country’s laws, and make a pronouncement that the community of believers should neither spread rumors nor listen to them.

Those criminals who intentionally spread false rumors and create confusion will be interrogated and will be ‘struck hard’ [a reference to the official ‘Strike Hard’ campaign against crime and political dissent].

China’s Golok Prefecture United Front Work Department
Golok Prefecture Nationalities and Religious Affairs Committee
Golok Prefecture Buddhist Association

July 11, 2013

[1] Eighteen year old monk, Konchok Sonam, who set himself on fire on July 20 and died outside his monastery, may have been present at this Kalachakra together with monks from his monastery, the Soktsang (Tashi Thekchokling) Gelugpa monastery.

[2] In February, thousands of Tibetans gathered in the last few days of Tibetan New Year (Losar) for significant religious ceremonies in eastern Tibet, despite being forced to confront massed ranks of armed troops. Vivid images disseminated on social media show higher numbers of Tibetans than usual gathering to pray at major monasteries – Labrang and Kumbum – during the Monlam prayer festival as troops stand guard or encircle the pilgrims. The new pictures emerged days in the tense buildup to March 10, the sensitive 54th anniversary of Tibet’s national uprising and the fifth anniversary of an unprecedented wave of mostly peaceful protests that swept across the Tibetan plateau in 2008. The Tibetans gathered in areas where a number of self-immolations have occurred over the past six months, including Labrang in Gansu and Rebkong in Qinghai. A number of recent self-immolations by Tibetans occurred at monasteries in eastern Tibet during religious ceremonies. Images and report by ICT report, Thousands of Tibetan pilgrims face troops at religious ceremonies in eastern Tibet