It is an indication of the political climate under the new Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Zhang Qingli, a known hardliner who emphasizes ideological reform, that this instruction was published openly in a newspaper. The announcement (in Chinese, translated in full below) stated: “Everyone must conscientiously respect the government and Party committee’s demand.” The Chinese government claims that Tibetans have complete freedom to practice their religion.
Tibetans traditionally mark the passing of Tsongkhapa by lighting butter-lamps and candles on the rooftops of monasteries and homes to mark the death of the scholar Tsongkhapa, who passed away at Ganden monastery in Lhasa on the 25th day of the 10th Tibetan month2 in 1419. Tibetans traditionally gather at the Barkhor in Lhasa to make offerings on the day of the anniversary, and the authorities may have been seeking to prevent such a gathering.
The government ruling on this important Buddhist anniversary follows a pattern of increased hostility towards the Dalai Lama from leaders in Tibet over a period of several months last year, and indicates a continued emphasis on the extension of political control over the practice of religion in the wider society as well as in monasteries and nunneries.
Over the past year, the Tibet Autonomous Region Party Secretary Zhang Qingli has presided over an intensification of ‘patriotic education’ in the region, stating that the Party is engaged in a ‘fight to the death struggle’ against the Dalai Lama and his supporters.3 Zhang Qingli, who took over from Yang Chuantang, was formally appointed as Communist Party Secretary of the TAR on May 26, 2006 from a senior post as commander of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which promotes the immigration of Chinese people into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR, or East Turkestan) as well as protecting border security and ‘stability’. Zhang Qingli’s tenure in the XUAR coincided with a period of severe repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and he became known for a hardline ‘anti-splittist’ position in public statements.
Since the beginning of his tenure in the TAR, senior Party officials in Tibet have emphasized their intention of stepping up the ‘anti-separatist struggle and the management of religious affairs’, in particular in terms of undermining the continued influence of the Dalai Lama.4 Last year, at around the time of the opening of the railroad from Qinghai to Lhasa in July, some government workers were required to write long denunciations of the Tibetan religious leader, causing resentment and despair.
The ban on commemorating the anniversary of Tsongkhapa’s passing for government workers, students and others follows tension and unrest at the three major monasteries in Lhasa, Drepung, Sera and Ganden (where Tsongkhapa died) over the past year, linked to monks’ responses to current government policy on religion. In November 2005, monks at Drepung staged a peaceful protest against the intensification of patriotic education at the monastery and the expulsion of five monks. Pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama apparently led to the suicide of a Drepung monk in his thirties, Ngawang Jangchub. The incidents at Drepung took place during the visit of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, to Lhasa, although Dr. Nowak was apparently unaware of the protests and crackdown that followed during his visit to Tibet.
At Ganden, there was disquiet among the monastic population during a visit by the Chinese-installed Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu (known as ‘fake Panchen’ among many Tibetans) in October 2005. In a separate incident five months later, three monks were detained and two are now serving prison sentences after destroying a statue of the controversial deity Dorje Shugden at the monastery. The Dalai Lama has advised his Tibetan followers not to worship the deity. According to reports from Tibet, the monks who destroyed the statue were motivated by a desire to protect Ganden from rumors that monks there were worshipping the Shugden deity in contravention to the Dalai Lama’s advice. The same rumors had apparently spread about Sera monastery, with local people accusing monks said to be worshipping Dorje Shugden there of destroying the teachings of Tsongkhapa. The Chinese authorities are known to encourage worship of the Shugden deity among some Tibetans as part of their attempts to undermine the Dalai Lama’s influence.
In a further incident in Lhasa, in July 2006, a prayer ceremony at Sera monastery was interrupted by police, and the presiding monastic official, Jangchub Gyaltsen, expelled and subjected to one year of surveillance, according to a report by Radio Free Asia (November 18, 2006).
Mary Beth Markey, Vice President of ICT, said: “The Chinese government claims to allow religious freedom in Tibet, but this latest instruction on the festival of Gaden Ngachoe prevents a devotional activity that has been practiced by Tibetans for hundreds of years and is at the heart of their cultural identity. This can only create further resentment among Tibetans towards the government’s hardline approach.”
Announcement in the Lhasa Evening News (Chinese: La sa wan bao)
December 12, 2006
(translation from Chinese by ICT)
The traditional religious festival Gaden Ngachoe [the anniversary of the passing of Tsongkhapa]5 is coming soon. All organs of the Party and Government of Lhasa City, business and enterprise work units and people’s collectives must strengthen and tighten up the education, guidance and management of the broad masses of cadres and staff. All members of the Communist Party, government employees, retired cadres and staff, cadres and workers of business and enterprise work units and people’s collectives, and the broad masses of young students are not permitted to participate in or observe celebrations of the Gaden Ngachoe Festival. Everyone must conscientiously respect the government and Party committee’s demand.
The Office of Chinese Communist Party Committee of Lhasa City.
The Office of the People’s Government of Lhasa City
December 12, 2006
1 The Dalai Lama belongs to the Gelugpa (‘Yellow Hat’) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. When Tsongkhapa passed away in December 1419 at the age of sixty, he left 18 volumes of collected teachings which serve as the basis for studies in the Gelugpa tradition.
2 The festival fell on December 15 last year.
3 Meeting of Party officials on May 16, 2006, reported by Xinhua in Chinese on June 21, 2006. Zhang’s tenure as Acting Party Secretary in the TAR began in fall 2005. See report ‘Xinjiang Communist Party official Promoted to Acting Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region’, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, http://www.cecc.gov, June 21, 2006.
4 ICT report, ‘Political repression intensifies as Tibet railway opens’ – June 30, 2006
5 The festival is also known as the ‘five offerings’ festival.
- ICT report, ‘Political repression intensifies as Tibet railway opens’ – June 30, 2006
- Human Rights Watch, ‘China: Fewer Tibetans on Lhasa’s Key Ruling body: Lowest Representation Since 1966’ – November 7, 2006
- Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), ‘Xinjiang Communist Party official Promoted to Acting Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region’ – June 21, 2006
- ICT report, ‘The Panchen Lama’s 17th birthday: more control of religion in Tibet, ban on prayer-flags in one Tibetan area’ – April 25, 2006