Dalai Lama shrine

Although any image of the Dalai Lama is prohibited, many personal shrines in monasteries and private houses display photos and posters.

In a move that has provoked some speculation, the Chinese authorities recently allowed Tibetans in Drango (Chinese: Luohuo) county in Kardze, eastern Tibet (part of modern-day Sichuan province) to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday with a prayer ceremony and to display images of the Tibetan religious leader. Any attempt to publicly mark the Dalai Lama’s July 6 birthday is generally banned in Tibet. According to several Tibetan sources, one ‘work team’ of a handful of officials who visited the area even brought pictures of the Dalai Lama for local people. Although this is a radical departure from usual practice, it is still an isolated initiative in a climate of deepening state repression and the hardening of the Chinese government’s position on the Dalai Lama, and there is no evidence that it represents any shift in approach at a higher level or trial of a new strategy. Some Tibetans have described it as a “temporary tactic” as part of an attempt to prevent unrest to coincide with the upcoming 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1.

According to several Tibetan sources with contacts in the Drango area in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, monks, nuns and laypeople were allowed to gather at Drango monastery to chant long-life prayers to mark the 74th birthday of the Dalai Lama. A work team of around five or six officials with a very different message to the usual hardline approach visited most townships in Drango county in Kardze in June, and is now visiting neighboring Kangding county also in Kardze prefecture, according to the same sources. One of the Tibetan sources told ICT: “The villagers in the area were very surprised and confused that the Chinese Communist officials [in the work team] gave a speech in praise of the Dalai Lama. This follows a campaign of ‘patriotic education’ in all the monasteries that has been very severe. But this time some officials just came along with some pictures of the Dalai Lama and spoke to local Tibetan people publicly in praise of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This has never ever happened before in Tibet over the last 60 years since Chinese occupied Tibet. Most people are in doubt about the purpose of this new campaign.”

A Tibetan who visited the area in July told ICT that while they did not hear about Dalai Lama images being offered to local people, it was clear that his pictures are allowed in some places and still banned at others. The Tibetan said: “It is not clear if this is an initiative by the central or local authorities ­ it would seem too risky for the latter ­ but perhaps new ways are being developed to manage the situation. Even so the monasteries and villages are still under tight control.”

The unusual move in Kardze follows a military crackdown and an intensified political education campaign in the area, where Tibetans have continued to express their dissent against Chinese rule with bold protests since a wave of demonstrations broke out across Tibet on March 10 last year. In Drango itself, monks, nuns and laypeople were fired upon by security police on March 24 last year when they held a peaceful protest. This apparently followed a clash with a work team requiring them to sign a written document denouncing the Dalai Lama. A 21-year old monk called Kunga was shot dead when police fired into the crowd, and at least ten others were wounded, according to at least two Tibetan sources, one of whom witnessed the death.

Tibetans in the Kardze area, the Tibetan area of Kham, are renowned for their strong sense of Tibetan identity and nationalism. Since March 10, 2008, Tibetans in Kardze have been more politically active than in almost any other Tibetan area of the PRC, risking their lives on numerous occasions through demonstrations, prayer vigils, and solitary protests, in order to convey their loyalty to the Dalai Lama and their anguish at the repression over the past year. Despite intense security in the region in the immediate wake of the protests in mid- to late-March 2008, monks, nuns and laypeople throughout Kardze continued to stage bold public protests with the knowledge that they would face almost certain torture and detention.

The imposition of ‘patriotic education’, requiring Tibetans to denounce the Dalai Lama, has deepened tension and intensified unrest rather than creating the “genuine stability” that the Chinese Communist Party states it is seeking. But there is no evidence yet that this new and limited softer line in some areas of Kardze means a more reflective approach by the Party, nor is the purpose clear of allowing Tibetans in the Drango area some limited space to practice their religion and express their devotion to the Dalai Lama.

A Tibetan researcher in exile who has spoken to Tibetans from Kardze expressed the view that: “I have heard that many Chinese officials are worried about the social stability in Kham and Amdo [Tibetan areas now incorporated into Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan] more than they are in the Tibet Autonomous Region. From the Chinese side there is a saying that in order to control Tibet, Kham must first be controlled. The local authorities know that the people in these two regions are very religious with a strong belief in their lamas especially His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Many of the protests since last year in those two regions have been due to the ‘patriotic education’ in monasteries and restrictions of religious activities in the last decades, which hurt the people in the area very deeply. Therefore the Chinese authorities may have implemented that new campaign in the area in order to reduce the anger and hatred under Communist rule in the area from local Tibetan peoples’ minds. It is highly likely to be a tactic to maintain ‘social stability’ as before the 60th anniversary rather than a positive step towards a different government policy in Tibet in the long run.”

The Chinese authorities are known for practicing alternative waves of concession and hardline policies, called ‘fang-shou’, meaning ‘soft-hard’. This sometimes takes the form of backing off from stronger language after a propaganda offensive. Some Chinese officials and intellectuals are known to have expressed concern in policy circles about the stepped-up rhetoric against the Dalai Lama following the March 2008 protests and against the Sino-Tibetan dialogue process. Some have also been concerned about the outspoken tirades of Tibet Autonomous Region Party Secretary Zhang Qingli, who formerly served in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, about the Dalai Lama, couched in ideological language reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

Intensification of ‘patriotic education’ deepens dissent

Following the suppression of the March 2008 protests by the security forces, the state responded with an intensification of compulsory ‘patriotic education’ as a means of imposing political order in Tibetan areas. The campaign launched in mid-April 2008 under the title “Oppose Separatism, Maintain Stability, Promote Development” was conducted on three main fronts: in the monasteries, where ‘patriotic education’ has been conducted more or less continuously in most Tibetan areas since the mid 1990s; in government offices, schools and work units; and among the general public, particularly in areas where protest was widespread. It was supposed to be carried out for two months, and the main themes were denunciation of the Dalai Lama and his ‘reactionary clique,’ education in the evils of the ‘old society’ and the benefits of socialism, and education in ‘Scientific Development’, the term given to centrally ordained development policies throughout all of the People¹s Republic of China. The extension of this ‘patriotic education’ campaign to ordinary citizens is remarkable in that they have been exempt, at least from demands that they denounce the Dalai Lama and present their political opinions to official scrutiny, since the introduction of post-Maoist reforms in the early 1980s.

‘Patriotic education’ was stepped up in Kardze even before the more recent protests. Citing an official article in the Ganzi Daily, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China reported that on January 8, 2008, authorities began a pilot program that utilizes “propaganda and cultural service kits” and “mobile propaganda banners” in select county villages aimed at increasing ‘anti-separatism’ and ‘patriotic education’ initiatives. (www.cecc.gov).

Following the March, 2008 protests, the authorities adjusted the ideological campaigns at monasteries and nunneries to include not only ‘patriotic education’ but also ‘rule of law propaganda activities’, which center on compulsory discussions and lectures about certain Chinese laws and regulations, including the Constitution and Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. Both the ‘rule of law propaganda activities’ and ‘patriotic education’ represent the intense efforts being made by the Chinese authorities to assert political legitimacy in Tibet’s monastic institutions. Over the past year, Chinese officials and journalists have also been instructed to tell foreigners that monks and nuns were not being asked to criticize the Dalai Lama, despite evidence from Tibet to the contrary.

Throughout April, May and June of 2008, nuns from nunneries including Pangri in Kardze staged numerous successive demonstrations in the county town, and dozens were severely beaten as they were detained. In February of this year, a monk was detained in Lithang (Chinese: Litang) county town having staged a public protest calling for the Dalai Lama’s return before being quickly detained. The next day, in an indication of the simmering tensions as well as people’s determination to have their voices heard, laypeople, monks and nuns took to the streets of the town calling for the release of the monk, and echoing his calls for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

A Tibetan who participated in the protest at Drango county on March 24 last year said that he was among a group of laypeople who were working on building a water channel to a monastery when they heard that some nuns from a nearby nunnery had protested. He and other laypeople and monks joined in. The Tibetan, who is now in exile, said that police, both uniformed and in plain clothes, fired into the crowd and a 21-year old monk called Kunga, from Drango village in the Trehor area, was shot twice in the chest. The Tibetan said: “Me, my uncle and another monk carried him towards the gonpa [monastery]. Many people gathered around. Then he died. We took his body to the monastery, then the police came and took it away.” The same Tibetan said that a relative of his was also wounded, and at least ten others.

In the Kardze area and other Tibetan areas there has been a trend of tightening control over religious practice and scholarship, which has been stepped up since March 2008 and has created deepening despair among Tibetans, reaching a breaking point last year. This includes the strengthening of the powers of the Chinese Communist Party’s Democratic Management Committees in religious institutions; a renewed determination by Chinese authorities to crack down on the influence of the Dalai Lama in Tibet; the severe undermining of traditional systems of monastic education; and appropriation by the atheistic Chinese state of authorities necessary for the transmission of teachings and the identification of reincarnate lamas. (See: ICT reports, ‘Tibet at a Turning Point: The Spring Uprising and China’s New Crackdown‘ and ‘New measures reveal government plan to purge monasteries and restrict Buddhist practice‘).