The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2017 Annual Report on April 26, 2017, in which it said “…conditions for freedom of religion or belief and related human rights continued to decline.” Focusing on Tibet, the report highlights several major violations of religious freedom in Tibet, including the eviction of “thousands of monks and nuns from the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in Tibet before demolishing their homes.” The report also noted the lack of accountability on China’s part regarding the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama.

The report also states: “Authorities target anyone considered a threat to the state, including religious believers, human rights lawyers, and other members of civil society.”

“The 2017 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report provides a stark reminder of the hardline policies China has implemented in Tibet. Since invading Tibet in the 1950’s the Chinese Communist Party has persecuted all Tibetan Buddhists who dare to speak their mind and resist Communist Party interference in the practice of their religion,” said Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet. “The repression continues unabated to this day. The Trump Administration should not only endorse the recommendations of the USCIRF, but should put the respect of religious freedom at the center of its bilateral relations with China. Failing to do so would not only go against US values, interests and international norms, but would also embolden the Chinese government’s authoritarian policies, which present a growing threat to people around the world.”

Based on China’s longstanding and continuing record of severe religious freedom violations, USCIRF recommended that the State Department include China as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The State Department has designated China as a CPC since 1999, most recently in October 2016. According to the Act, “Countries of Particular Concern,” are those in which particularly severe violations of religious freedom are tolerated or perpetrated.

In a statement on the release of the report, USCIRF Chair, Thomas Reese, S.J., said, “Religious freedom should not suffer under the guise of seeking to ensure national security.”

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and Congressional leaders of both political parties. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi appointed a Tibetan American, Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, as a Commissioner in 2016.

Following is the section on Tibetan Buddhists in the report, the full text can be seen on USCIRF’s website.

Tibetan Buddhists

The Chinese government claims the power to select the next Dalai Lama with the help of a law that grants the government authority over reincarnations. The Chinese government also vilifies the Dalai Lama, accusing him of “splittism” and “blasphemy,” including in at least 13 white papers on Tibet since the 1990s. Moreover, in December 2016, Tibet’s Communist Party Chief Wu Yingjie publicly said he expects the party’s control over religion in Tibet to increase. In 2016, Tibetan activist Nyima Lhamo, the niece of prominent Tibetan Buddhist leader Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in prison in July 2015, fled China to seek justice for her uncle’s death and later traveled to Europe where she gave a presentation before the 9th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. Chinese government has held Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, also known as the Panchen Lama, the second-highest position in Tibetan Buddhism, in secret for more than two decades. When the Chinese government abducted the Panchen Lama at age six and replaced him with its own hand-picked choice, the Dalai Lama had just designated him as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. Although in 2016 the government released several Tibetan prisoners who completed their sentences, such as Tibetan religious teacher Khenpo Kartse, it detained and charged several others. For example, in March 2016 Chinese police arrested Tashi Wangchuk on “separatism” charges; he is an advocate known for promoting a deeper understanding of the Tibetan language as integral to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. As of this writing, Tashi Wangchuk’s case is still pending; he could serve up to 15 years if convicted. In protest of repressive government policies, at least 147 Tibetans have self-immolated since February 2009, including Tibetan monk Kalsang Wangdu and Tibetan student Dorjee Tsering, both in 2016.

In July 2016, the Chinese government launched a sweeping operation to demolish significant portions of the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute located in Sichuan Province. Larung Gar is home to an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 monks, nuns, laypeople, and students of Buddhism from all over the world. Local officials instituting the demolition order referred to the project as “construction” or “renovation” to reduce the number of residents to no more than 5,000 by the end of September 2017.

As a result, officials have evicted thousands of monastics, laypeople, and students, some of whom reportedly were locked out of their homes before they could collect their belongings, or were forced to sign pledges promising never to return. Many others were forced to undergo so-called “patriotic reeducation programs.” The demolition order contains language governing ideology and future religious activities at Larung Gar and gives government officials—who are largely Han Chinese, not Tibetan—greater control and oversight of the institute, including direct control over laypeople. The order also mandates the separation of the monastery from the institute, running counter to the tradition of one blended encampment with both religious and lay education. The destruction at Larung Gar exemplifies Beijing’s desire to eviscerate the teachings and study of Tibetan Buddhism that are integral to the faith.

Recommendations to the U.S. Government

Continue to designate China as a CPC under IRFA;

  • Continue to raise consistently religious freedom concerns at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and other high-level bilateral meetings with Chinese leaders, and at every appropriate opportunity encourage Chinese authorities to refrain from imposing restrictive and discriminatory policies on individuals conducting peaceful religious activity, including activities the Chinese government conflates with terrorism or perceives as threats to state security;
  • Coordinate with other diplomatic missions and foreign delegations, including the United Nations (UN) and European Union, about human rights advocacy in meetings with Chinese officials and during visits to China, and encourage such visits to areas deeply impacted by the government’s religious freedom abuses, such as Xinjiang, Tibet, and Zhejiang Province;
  • Ensure that the U.S. Embassy and U.S. consulates, including at the ambassadorial and consuls general level, maintain active contacts with human rights activists and religious leaders;
  • Press for at the highest levels and work to secure the unconditional release of prisoners of conscience and religious freedom advocates, and press the Chinese government to treat prisoners humanely and allow them access to family, human rights monitors, adequate medical care, and lawyers and the ability to practice their faith;
  • Press the Chinese government to abide by its commitments under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and also independently investigate reports of torture among individuals detained or imprisoned, including reports of organ harvesting;
  • Initiate a “whole-of-government” approach to human rights diplomacy with China in which the State Department and National Security Council staff develop a human rights action plan for implementation across all U.S. government agencies and entities, including providing support for all U.S. delegations visiting China;
  • Increase staff attention to U.S. human rights diplomacy and the rule of law, including the promotion of religious freedom, at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and U.S. consulates in China, including by gathering the names of specific officials and state agencies who perpetrate religious freedom abuses;
  • Use targeted tools against specific officials and agencies identified as having participated in or being responsible for human rights abuses, including particularly severe violations of religious freedom; these tools include the “specially designated nationals” list maintained by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, visa denials under section 604(a) of IRFA and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and asset freezes under the Global Magnitsky Act; and
  • Press China to uphold its international obligations to protect North Korean asylum seekers crossing its borders, including by allowing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and international humanitarian organizations to assist them, and by ending repatriations, which are in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and Protocol and/ or the Convention Against Torture