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China’s revised regulations threaten religious freedom in Tibet

September 25, 2017

International Campaign for Tibet, September 18, 2017Revised Chinese government regulations on religion consolidate far-reaching powers of the Communist Party state over people’s lives and beliefs, and are a further threat to the continued survival of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet.

  • The revised rules on religious activity, issued by the Chinese State Council on September 7, 2017, conflate peaceful religious practice with ‘threats’ to China’s security, creating a more dangerous political environment for monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists, isolating them further from their counterparts outside China.
  • According to a newly revised provision of the regulation – and in an apparent attempt to use religion to achieve political goals of the Communist Party – religious groups are now bound to practice “core socialist values.”
  • The Chinese state media also announced a focus on the ‘Sinicization’ of religion, stating: “The direction of religions is to integrate them with Chinese culture” (Global Times, September 7, 2017). The Buddhist community is one of the main targets of ‘Sinicization’ of religion, which represents a more far-reaching effort to mould and shape Tibetan Buddhism to the diktats of the Chinese Communist Party in line with a more entrenched regulatory framework that has already deepened religious oppression over the last decade.

The updated version of rules that were originally imposed in 2005 is more restrictive than a draft made public last year. They were announced by Premier Li Keqiang on September 7, 2017 in advance of the important 19th Party Congress in Beijing on October 18. The language of the regulations reveals contradictions in the official position, indicative of both a desire to deepen the secularization of society by a government that advocates atheism, and to actively use religion for political purposes, with Buddhism as one of the religions that is accepted as ‘official’ by the CCP.

The new rules are consistent with a tightening regulatory and policy framework across the PRC on religion that denies Tibetans religious freedom, and by extension freedom of association, assembly, and expression. 

Equating religion and extremism

As the new rules were published, China’s official media stated that they “prohibit the use of religion as a tool to sabotage national security, social order or China’s education system, or to damage ethnic unity or carry out terrorist activities.” (China Daily, September 8, 2017). The need to “curb religious extremism” was also emphasized by a top political advisor, chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee Yu Zhengsheng, in a meeting on September 11.

In equating ‘terrorism’ with an undefined ‘extremism’ linked to religion, the Counter-Terrorism Law of the People’s Republic of China gives scope for the penalization of almost any peaceful expression of Tibetan identity, acts of non-violent dissent, or criticism of ethnic or religious policies, in a political climate in which the exiled Dalai Lama has been accused of inciting terrorism through self-immolations, and even terror through his teachings.

“Two safeguards – Two clarifications – two norms”

The basis of the updated rules were a set of Party slogans – the “two safeguards”,  “two clarifications” and “two norms”, according to a spokesperson for the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council cited in Legal Daily on September 7 (2017).

According to a translation of the article from Chinese, the “two safeguards” refers to protecting the religious freedom of citizens and the legitimate rights and interests of the religious community, and the safeguarding of “national security and social harmony”. The “two clarifications” explains the legal liability of religious venues and religious property rights, and focuses on curbing the tendencies of religious commercialization. The “two norms” refers to financial management regulation of religious circles and the regulation of religious information services on the internet, intensifying the authorities’ level of intrusion.

The Sinicization of Buddhism

The official newspaper the Global Times reported on September 7, 2017 that at a meeting in Beijing: “Leaders from five religious communities – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity – reached a consensus at a forum that ‘the direction of religions is to integrate them with Chinese culture.’”

The ‘Sinicization’ of religion outlined by the Global Times in conjunction with the publication of the updated religious regulations appears to be in line with intensified official efforts observed over the past year to incorporate attacks on the Dalai Lama as part of the United Front Work Department-led process to re-frame Tibetan Buddhism in conformity with CCP doctrines.

One of the key priorities of the United Front Work Department, which oversees the implementation of Party policy toward those considered China’s ethnic and religious groups, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and non-Communist Party organisations, is to maintain a hard-line position on Tibet, with a core mission of ‘struggle’ against the Dalai Lama. In 2015, the Chinese state media announced the formation of a leading group on United Front work, indicating an upgrading of the department and a strengthening of control, which has continued.

The United Front has been prominent in efforts to promote Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, installed as part of the government’s long-term strategy to control Tibetan Buddhism and eliminate loyalty to the Dalai Lama. Last year the ‘Chinese Panchen,’ as he is known among Tibetans, even carried out a major religious teaching in Shigatse – the first time a Kalachakra initiation has been held in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) for more than half a century. Numerous Chinese state media articles reported the attendance of more than 100,000 people every day at the ceremonies conducted by the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama in Shigatse, underlining the political intention to showcase the Kalachakra as a demonstration to the outside world that Tibetans are allowed to practice their religion. 

While Gyaltsen Norbu is compelled to conform to the role of ‘official’ Panchen Lama as a figurehead with allegiance to the CCP, he made an unusual observation in a statement in March, 2015, expressing his concern over endeavors to further ‘sinicize’ Tibetan Buddhism. In a comment that appeared to depart from the official view, he indicated that because of the shortage of monks in Tibet and [monastic] “quotas set too low,” there is “a danger of Buddhism existing in name only.”


The People’s Republic of Chinas has signed, but has not ratified the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. However, the country has ratified a number of human rights related treaties, such as the Convention Against Torture or the Child Right Convention, the latter stipulating the right to freedom of religion. The Chinese government was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2016 which, according to General Assembly Resolution 60/251 should, consist of members which “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, shall fully cooperate with the Council and be reviewed under the universal periodic review mechanism during their term of membership.”

The International Campaign for Tibet, referring to international human rights standards, would like to offer the following recommendations:

To the Chinese government:

  • Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); provide a concrete timeline for the ratification process;
  • Revise the current regulations on religious affairs according to international human rights standards, in particular with the principles enshrined in Article 18 of ICCPR.
  • Apply comments and resolutions by international human rights bodies or the United Nations General assembly with regard to Article 18 of ICCPR, in particular,
    • Refrain from appointing or approving religious personnel, in accordance with the 1981 Declaration of the General Assembly and Human Rights Committee general comment 22, para. 4;
    • Refrain from using broad and vague language such as “state security”, “religious extremism” and “terrorism” as a pretext for swift interventions with religious activities, groups, practitioners or religious professionals, in accordance with Human Rights Committee general comment 22, para. 8, ICCPR, Article 18, para 3, CRC, Article 14, para. 3, Commission on Human Rights resolution 2005/40, para. 12, and Human Rights Council resolution 6/37, para. 14;
    • Refrain from applying censorship to Buddhist literature or related information disseminated in publications or via the internet, in accordance with 1981 Declaration of the General Assembly, Commission on Human Rights resolution 2005/40 (paragraph 4 (d)) and Human Rights Council resolution 6/37 (paragraph 9 (g)), Human Rights Committee general comment 22, para. 4;
    • Refrain from requiring approval, oversight and management of religious affairs, in accordance with Article 18 ICCPR;
    • Refrain from demolishing Tibetan Buddhist sites, in accordance with the 1981 Declaration of the General Assembly, Article 6, Human Rights Council resolution 6/37, Article 9e;
  • Refrain from penalizing Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage abroad, in accordance with Article 12 ICCPR;
  • Seek dialogue with Tibetan Buddhist leaders on a regular basis when state oversight, according to international human rights principles, is justified, in order to solve conflicts amicably while respecting principles of freedom of religion an belief;

To the international community:

  • Urge the Chinese government to ratify the ICCPR and to provide a concrete timeline for the ratification;
  • Urge the Chinese government to stop demolitions of Tibetan Buddhist religious institutions, such as Larung Gar;
  • Urge the Chinese government to fully revise religious affairs regulations and bring them in conformity with Article 18 of ICCPR and international human rights standards.
  • Urge the Chinese government to refrain from using broad and vague language such as “National Security”, “terrorism” or “religious extremism” as a pretext for wide ranging interventions into Tibetan Buddhist life.
  • Use international fora, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, to publicly address the restrictions of freedom of religion with regard to religious groups in the People’s Republic of China;
  • Use bilateral dialogues with the People’s Republic of China to address the restrictions of freedom of religion in the People’s Republic of China;
  • Seek close consultation with Tibetan Buddhist leaders living in exile on the status of religious freedom in Tibet.

Because of its length, this article has been edited by WTN.  To read the report in full with endnotes, see

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