The community of religious believers is the pointed target group upon whom Sinification has been declared explicitly and enforced through the party-state apparatus. Religion is at the fault line in the party’s effort to build its political and social legitimacy. Recognizing religious believers as a real social force that the party could not take lightly, Xi Jinping emphasized the adherence to the party’s basic policy for religious work as defined in 2003. The basic policy included the party’s view of what the religious believers can believe as defined by the party, to practice within the bounds of laws regulating their behavior, self-regulation and adapting to the socialist society. Although the first three established the policies and the principles, adapting to the socialist society is the direction and purpose of the policy as proposed by the Central United Front Work Conference in 1993.
Since the party’s adoption of a relatively tolerant view of religion in the post-Mao era to build regime legitimacy, with the conviction that religion will wither away in the process of time, the materialistic trend in China has led to the gradual mushrooming of religious believers beyond the party’s unexpected challenge of maintaining its authority. To check further erosion of its authority and rebuild legitimacy, the party would activate upon the religious community a series of political campaigns demanding them to throw themselves into the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation being steered by Xi Jinping and the party leadership. Since the party genuinely believes that its vision of a rejuvenated China is predicated upon resolving the problem of local cultural identity to clear the path for the Chinese national identity, Tibetans were foremost in the party-state’s long-term assimilationist drive because of their socio-political identity based on the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism.
Although Buddhism in general is one of the five religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism) recognized by the PRC, the party-state continues to hold an antagonistic view of the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. While the Chinese tradition of Buddhism is held as part of the indigenous Chinese culture, the party-state views Tibetan Buddhism as a deviant needing guidance from the party-defined “fine traditional Chinese culture.” Xi Jinping takes great pride in and emphasizes the “fine traditional Chinese culture” as the authentic indigenous Chinese culture. Buddhism, although recognized as a religion of foreign import, is viewed as an indigenous religion in China and part of the traditional Chinese culture. He spoke glowingly of Buddhism in China during a visit to the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France on March 27, 2014:
Buddhism originated in ancient India. After it was introduced into China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with the indigenous Confucianism and Taoism and finally became the Buddhism with Chinese characteristics … The Chinese people have enriched Buddhism in the light of Chinese culture and developed some special Buddhist thoughts.
While Xi presented a positive view of Buddhism in his UNESCO speech, in comparison, the reality on the ground differed significantly. Chinese Buddhists, who form the vast majority of the estimated 185 to 250 million Buddhist faithful (according to Freedom House), also faced hardships under Xi’s Sinification policy for not complying with party orders. Far worse treatment is given to the Tibetan Buddhists, as they are viewed as needing harmonization to serve the interests of the party-state rather than liberation of minds. The strategy to accomplish domestication of Tibetan Buddhism is to methodically assimilate it toward developing “consciousness of the community of the Chinese nation” in order to “contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”
Harmonization of Tibetan Buddhism was strongly signaled during President Xi’s visit to Tibet on July 22, 2021. Speaking to a group of monks at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, Xi had said:
The law of the development of religion lies in “harmony”. The survival and development of any religion must be adapted to the society in which it is located. This is the universal law of the development and spread of religions in the world. Religions must be harmonious, and society must be harmonious. The nation must be in harmony.
Xi’s exhortation echoed the position that the party-state maintained for a long time as stated in the State Council’s 1997 “White Paper on Freedom of Religious Belief in China.” But adaptation of religion would be implemented with a much greater force during Xi’s leadership than any other Chinese leaders’ in the post-Mao era. While on the surface, “adapting to the society in which it is located” seemingly means adaptation to Tibetan society, in fact it means adaptation to a Chinese society in the Chinese nation-state. That is the crux of the party-state’s Sinification of Tibetan believers.
Sinification entered Chinese political discourse after the Central United Front Work Conference in 2015. The term was officially sanctioned when President Xi Jinping at the conference spoke of
Actively guiding religion to adapt to the socialist society and must adhere to the direction of sinification. Historically, the adaptation of religion to the society in which it is located is the trend and law of the survival and development of religion. We must use the core socialist values to guide and infiltrate various religions in our country with Chinese culture.
Recognizing religious work as a “mass work,” Xi directed religions to be Sinified. He also laid down the plan to enhance the party’s grip and control on the religious community, building the party’s support base in the religious community and research work to fuse religious philosophy to that of Marxist philosophy on religion. All these plans unfolded in substance in later party-initiated conferences on various topics relevant to religion. Xi’s instructions at the conference were in fact based on the five basic characteristics of religion that the United Front Work Department identified and formalized in the late 1950s and reiterated in 1989. The United Front Work Department then recognized the five basic characteristics of religion as the long-term character of religion, its mass base, national and international aspects, and complexity. In reaffirming religious work as a “mass work,” Xi signaled that Sinification of religions would be a long-term process in controlling hundreds of millions of believers, with the fundamental criterion for evaluating its effectiveness being the masses of religious believers rallying behind the party and the government.
In January 2016, China formally launched an online database of CCP-approved Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations, officially designated as “authentic Living Buddhas” of Tibetan Buddhism, listing names and descriptions of 870 such individuals. “Living Buddha” is the term adopted by the Chinese to refer to reincarnated beings. The Dalai Lama is not included in this database. The online platform was a clear effort by the CCP to assert control over the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation and Tibetan Buddhist institutions and practices. The legal groundwork for this initiative was already laid down in 2007 with the issuance of Order No. 5, titled “Management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism,” aimed at undermining and supplanting the Tibetan Buddhist religious hierarchy and diminishing the authority of legitimate Tibetan religious leaders.
Sinification was further substantiated at The National Religious Work Conference in April 2016 with the goal to reassert the party’s “guiding” role in religious affairs. Dissatisfied with the then prevailing state of religious affairs, President Xi Jinping chaired the conference, making him the party general secretary chairing the meeting 15 years after Jiang Zemin chaired it in 2001. Xi elaborated what Sinification entails when he spoke of:
Actively guiding religions to adapt to the socialist society is to guide religious believers to love the motherland and the people, maintain the unity of the motherland, maintain the unity of the Chinese nation, obey and serve the highest interests of the country and the overall interests of the Chinese nation; support the leadership of the Communist Party of China and support the socialist system. Adhere to the socialist system with Chinese characteristics; actively practice the core values of socialism, promote Chinese culture and strive to integrate religious teachings with Chinese culture, abide by national laws and regulations, and consciously accept state management in accordance with the law. Dedicated to reforming and opening up and socialist modernization and contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
At the Central United Front Work Conference in 2015, Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of religious figures taking an active role in guiding religious believers and promoting the adaptation of religion to a socialist society. This would result in the formulation of the “Four Standards” campaign and deployment of it in the Tibetan monastic community to train monks and nuns to become “politically reliable, religiously accomplished, convincing in morals and effective at critical times.” The monastic community in the Tibet Autonomous Region and those in the Tibetan-inhabited areas outside the TAR were subjected to the mechanism led by the United Front Work Department beginning in 2018. The campaign continues to be rolled forward as directed by Xi Jinping at the latest National Religious Work Conference in December 2021.
Through the “four standards” mechanism, the UFWD cadres “reeducate” the Tibetan monastic community to hold “Chinese national consciousness” and compliance with the party-state’s laws and policies governing religious affairs. For instance, the Ngari (Ali) UFWD meeting on May 10, 2020 required strict enforcement of the party’s policy on religious work and regulations governing religious affairs in the monasteries. The meeting emphasized the monastic community’s need to develop consciousness as Chinese nationals and have consciousness only for the country and its laws. This in effect means to make the Tibetan monastics Chinese in the Chinese nation-state.
The “four standards” campaign aims to produce talents in the religious community to speak for the party’s vision of a modern socialist state. Because the Tibetan Buddhist teachers are influential in shaping Tibetan society, as they are held in high esteem, efforts are underway to manufacture talents who can steer the society by persuading the masses to shun Tibetan identity in favor of a Chinese identity for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The China-selected Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, regularly amplifies the Sinification of Tibetan Buddhism. At the 11th Council of the TAR branch of the Chinese Buddhist Association in Shigatse on Oct. 13, 2020, he read a speech stating that
…a new navigation mark has been established and a new journey has begun. We must keep in mind the entrustment, be grateful and forge ahead, and demonstrate new responsibilities in promoting the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism … Fully carry forward the fine tradition of safeguarding the unity of the motherland and strengthening national unity, promote the “five identities”, and unswervingly adhere to the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism. Improve the long-term mechanism of temple management, promote the adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism to socialist society, play its own positive role, and strive to contribute to promoting high-quality development and keeping the bottom line of ecological security. With the practical actions of grasping the four major issues of stability, development, ecology, and strengthening the border, we will make new and greater contributions to the construction of a united, prosperous, civilized, harmonious, and beautiful socialist modernized Tibet, and to the realization of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Emphasizing that Sinification of Tibetan Buddhism is a systematic approach, the then-Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Wu Yingje, most clearly outlined how the party expects the monastic community to comply with its policy. Speaking at the Forum of Representatives of Religious Circles in the TAR on Dec. 30, 2020, Wu called for denunciation of the Dalai Lama and “ resolutely draw[ing] a clear line with the Dalai clique.” The monastics were told to publicize the state law on reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders. Secondly, he instructed them to “build a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation. Love national unity as you love your own eyes and protect national unity as you protect your own life.” Third, the monastics were expected to feel gratitude for the Communist Party and to drive the believers to support the leadership of the party. Fourth, the monastics are instructed to comply with Xi Jinping’s thoughts on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era and to explain and make it clear that Tibetan Buddhist culture is an integral part of Chinese culture. And finally, Wu, as the then-party secretary of the TAR, instructs the monastic community to abide by the laws and regulations on religion affairs. He orders that the monastics “must assist the party and government to guide religious believers to establish a new style of civilization.”
In the party-state structure, Tibetan party members also play a vital role in penetrating the party’s policy on Sinification of Buddhism at the local level. In the words of Xi Jinping at the Central Ethnic Work Conference in September 2014, “To do a good job in ethnic work, ethnic minority cadres are important bridges and bonds. Let them deal with lot of the matters for us because they are more likely to be accepted by ethnic minorities; they will show up at critical moments, and the effect will be better.” Holding concurrent titles as a member of the Standing Committee of the Party Committee of Tibet Autonomous Region, Secretary of the Lhasa City Party Committee, leader of the city’s Party Committee’s Religious Work Leading Group, Tibetan party member Pema Wangdue’s instructions to the religious community reflect the successful fruition of Mr. Xi’s expectations.
Propagating to the representatives of religious circles in Lhasa on Nov. 6, 2020 regarding the Seventh Tibet Work Forum, Pema repeats verbatim a certain portion of Xi Jinping’s speech delivered five years ago at the Central United Front Work Conference. Besides promoting sycophancy to the party by feeling “gratitude to the party,” Pema lays a strong emphasis on the religious community and leading the believers.
“Build a strong sense of the Chinese nation community … to strengthen the recognition of the great motherland, the Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the Communist Party of China, and socialism with Chinese characteristics … to fully understand that Tibetan Buddhism must consciously identify with Chinese politics, consciously integrate into Chinese culture.”
Framing it in terms of progressive language, he instructs the eminent monks to
“make interpretations of the teachings and rules of Tibetan Buddhism in line with the requirements of the progress of the times and make every effort to help Tibetan Buddhism to always move in the direction of sinification. Let Chinese culture always be the emotional bond and spiritual belonging of all ethnic groups in Tibet, make the idea that Tibetan ethnic culture is an inseparable part of Chinese culture deeply rooted in the heart, and promote exchanges and integration of all ethnic groups.”
Sinification of religions was reiterated during the last National Conference on Religious Work held in Beijing between Dec. 3-4, 2021. The central leadership reflected on the achievements of the party’s religious work and expounded new notions and strategies to achieve the goal. Lauding the progress in religious work since the 18th CCP National Congress in 2012, Xi expressed his satisfaction at the effectiveness of Sinification of religions. Signifying that his vision is a work in progress, Xi stressed the implementation of the top-level design for Sinification by further entrenching the religious work system, mechanisms and construction of a religious affairs governance structure involving the party, government, social coordination, and regulations. Toward that, Xi called for cultivating “three teams” for religious work by forming a team of party and government cadres, a team of religious talent who have undergone the “four standards” campaign and a religious research team to innovate and strengthen the discipline construction of Marxist religious studies.