- A major religious festival, the prayer gathering Dechen Shedrub, has been cancelled at Larung Gar institute despite earlier assurances that it would go ahead, according to Tibetan sources. The new development follows the demolition of monastic residences, expulsion of thousands of monks and nuns and the imposition of direct Communist Party control at one of the world’s leading Buddhist institutes in Serthar (Chinese: Serta), Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan.
- Checkpoints have been set up on the approach to Larung Gar, indicating the tightened security following the wave of demolitions and the appointment of Chinese Communist Party members to key positions at the institute, the world’s largest center of Buddhist study and ethics, according to new information received by the International Campaign for Tibet.
- Recent construction work confirms that the Chinese authorities are using the development of tourism as a tool to counter cultural resilience and monastic influence, as the CCP seeks to impose more stringent restrictions in its stated aim of ‘Sinicizing religion’, emphasized at the 19th Party Congress and following the imposition of new religious regulations across the PRC.
The Dechen Shedrub religious festival, which was due to begin on Monday (November 6) was originally going to be permitted this year at Larung Gar, after it was cancelled last year at the height of the demolitions, and once before in 2009, after the protests and crackdown in the area and across Tibet in 2008. But some Tibetan religious teachers were recently summoned to the provincial capital of Chengdu and told that the religious festival cannot be held this year. A Tibetan source said: “The authorities didn’t stand by their words and made an official statement ordering that the religious festival could not be held. Instead, they told us that monks and nuns should practice it quietly in their rooms.”
According to various Tibetan sources, the authorities stated it was not appropriate to hold such a large gathering given the situation at the institute, following the demolitions and new construction being undertaken. A further reason is that the authorities, which have imposed more stringent controls at Larung Gar, aim to ensure that monks and nuns who have been expelled do not return for a major religious teaching.
Traditionally the Dechen Shedrub religious festival lasts for around eight days and brings together large numbers of devotees. A Tibetan who spoke to the Tibetan language service of Radio Free Asia said: “The festival organizers had fully prepared for the event,” he said. “They sent people to Chengdu city to buy everything they would need, and the local people had excitedly begun to set up tents at the venue.”
Recent visitors to Larung Gar have revealed that there are two new branch offices of the Public Security Bureau near the main entry and exit gates of the religious institute, with new police checkpoints just next to each office, and another approximately 1-2 kilometers away. Uniformed officials check identity of visitors and ask questions about the visit. Vehicles have to park further away from the monastery than before.
A recent image from the religious complex, which pioneered Buddhist revitalization in Tibetan areas from the 1980s onwards, attracting thousands of Chinese Buddhist practitioners as well as Tibetans, shows how demolition has been carried out on a vertical plane, according space for water and electricity supplies and to create stairs up hilly ascents. According to a Tibetan who knows the area, “Recent visitors have commented that some of the infrastructure construction needed to be done, but not in any way on the scale the demolitions have been carried out, and no one believes there is any justification whatever the authorities might say for the number of expulsions, which are so distressing for Tibetans and which fully indicate the political agenda of the authorities.”
In the main square of the institute, construction work is ongoing, building on earlier work following the demolitions of monks’ and nuns’ homes. At the end of June, a senior abbot at the center said that Chinese authorities had destroyed 4,725 monastic dwellings at Larung Gar over the course of a year, with a total of more than 7,000 demolished since efforts to reduce the number of monks and nuns living at the sprawling complex began in 2001, according to a report by the Tibetan language service of Radio Free Asia on November 1. More than 4,825 monks and nuns have also been expelled since 2016, the abbot said, with many forced back to their hometowns and deprived of opportunities to pursue religious studies.
The demolitions followed a wave of earlier destruction at the institute in 2001, but differ from this pattern in that the tourism industry has taken a far greater prominence over the past year. At the same time as undermining religious practice and teaching and stepping up intrusive security measures, the Chinese authorities are using this very interest in Tibetan Buddhism to attract domestic tourists, leading to fears of further diminishment of these monastic communities, popularly known as ‘religious encampments’ or ‘chogars’ in Tibetan.
Photographs and videos published by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy showed cleared strips, estimated to be 100 meters in length, now being used to build large staircases with railings that will be used to enable growing numbers of tourists to reach the top of the hill. Residential areas are being divided further into segments, and a tarmacked road has been built so that tourists can drive up to stay in a hotel. A Tibetan monk who had lived for a number of years at Larung Gar said that most of the demolitions happened in 2016, and that this year the emphasis has been on construction.
New quarters have been built for displaced nuns, and according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, backed up by other sources, several large nunneries have been built in other areas of Sichuan and in Qinghai to house evicted nuns. Some evicted monks have been housed in tents, while others have had to return home and not to pursue their religious study.
Official plans for urbanization and tourism focused on presenting an official version of Tibetan religious culture and a ‘happy Kardze’, involving an emphasis on non-religious elements of Tibetan culture, aligned with longer-term strategies to contain dissent, ‘manage’ religious activities and ensure Party control across the prefecture.
In August, the Chinese official media announced the appointment of Chinese Communist Party officials to key management positions at Larung Gar, in order to exercise direct control over the institute. Sources told ICT that this further demoralizes the religious population at the academy and undermines the authority and influence of the religious teachers at Larung Gar.
 Radio Free Asia, ‘China Bans Major Prayer Festival at Larung Gar’, November 1, 2017, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/prayer-11012017155249.html
 Documented in the International Campaign of Tibet report, ‘Shadow of dust across the sun: how tourism is used to counter Tibetan cultural resilience’, March 13, 2017, https://www.savetibet.org/shadow-of-dust-across-the-sun-how-tourism-is-used-to-counter-tibetan-cultural-resilience/
 Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, ‘Undercover in Larung Gar a year after demolition’, August 11, 2017, http://tchrd.org/undercover-in-larung-gar-a-year-after-demolition-worlds-largest-tibetan-buddhist-institute-sliced-like-a-melon/
 Also see the report by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, ‘Tightening the Noose’, August 23, 2017, http://tchrd.org/tightening-the-noose-china-appoints-communist-party-members-to-key-positions-at-larung-gar-tibetan-buddhist-institute/