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China's Panchen Lama criticizes quotas restricting monastic population

April 27, 2015

  •  On April 25, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, will turn 26. His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized Gendun Choekyi Nyima, from Lhari, Nagchu (Chinese: Naqu) in Tibet, as the 11th Panchen Lama on May 14, 1995. A few days later, Chinese authorities abducted him and despite numerous enquiries for access from the international community, have not revealed information about his whereabouts or welfare. His plight remains of deep concern to the Tibetan people.
  • Chinese authorities then installed, in November 1995, Gyaltsen (Chinese: Gyalcain) Norbu, 25, as Panchen Lama, violating Tibetan religious traditions and practices concerning the reincarnations of lamas. Tibetans feel he has been selected by the Chinese authorities to ensure control of Tibet and assert their authority over a future incarnation of the Dalai Lama.]
  • On March 4, 2015 Gyaltsen Norbu delivered a speech in Beijing at a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in which he addressed a variety of issues related to religious policies in Tibet, and stated that Tibetans “enjoy religious freedom.”
  • With these public comments and other activities, including visits to Tibet, authorities in Beijing are trying to present the China-selected Panchen Lama as a legitimate figure with respect to religious policies in Tibet, continuing to disregard the fact that Tibetans do not recognize him as the Panchen Lama.
  • In what is probably an effort by the Chinese government to present their Panchen Lama as credible, Gyaltsen Norbu criticizes the imposition of quotas restricting the monastic population. Ironically, the comments, which, to date, the authorities have not corrected, are an unlikely admission by a religious figure controlled by the State that quotas restricting the number of monks exist in Tibet.

International Campaign for Tibet, April 21, 2015 -  Gyaltsen Norbu’s speech, translated into English by ICT in full at is framed carefully in accordance with the Party line on religion, stating that in the “glow of the Party’s ethnic and religious policies,” Tibetans and other ethnicities enjoy “freedom of religious belief”, normal religious practices the and preservation of culture.

In his speech, Gyaltsen Norbu outlined the role of monks and nuns as follows: first, transmitting the Buddhist heritage; second, taking care of and protecting temples, halls, and cultural relics; and third, providing religious services to the masses. He then said that the current monastic population is not large enough to play these roles and gives three main reasons for the insufficient number of monks in Tibet. First, he said, with the development of society, and with more career choices, society is more attractive and some monks have returned to secular life; second, as life improves, and birthrate decreases, some families do not want their children to become monks; and third, he said, “it’s very important to mention that many monasteries have limited quotas, and there’s a phenomenon of many monasteries seeming to be at full strength or even above that.”

Chinese authorities do not openly admit the existence of “quotas” on monks in monasteries and nuns in nunneries. The government line is that the correct number of monks varies according to the monastery’s capacity to support them. Buddhist associations and monastic management committees are the proxies for the government in approving or reviewing such matters. In effect, this represents a government-approved “quota.”

Gyaltsen Norbu’s comments are noteworthy since he is being groomed and managed by the Chinese authorities as part of Beijing’s political agenda, with control over the Dalai Lama’s succession a major focus. Historically, the Panchen Lama has been one of Tibet’s most revered religious figures, with a unique relationship to the Dalai Lama. Some Panchen Lamas have previously played a role in the recognition and subsequent education of Dalai Lamas, and vice versa, which is why control over the institution is considered to be so crucial by the Chinese leadership.

On February 12, Gyaltsen Norbu was pictured by the state media with Sun Chunlun, the head of the United Front Work Department, who is also in the Politburo. Gyaltsen Norbu’s March 4 speech before members of China’s top leadership would certainly have had to been officially approved beforehand.

Most Tibetans revere Gendun Choekyi Nyima, recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1995 as the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama. On May 17, 1995, the 11th Panchen Lama disappeared. Suspicions that he had been kidnapped were confirmed in 1996 during questioning by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, when the Chinese government admitted to holding the boy and his family in “protective custody.” He has now been missing for two decades.

In April 2011, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances issued a statement on enforced disappearances in China, and mentioned the longstanding case of the 11th Panchen Lama. The Working Group stated that “While the Chinese authorities have admitted taking him, they have continually refused to divulge any information about him or his whereabouts, making his case an enforced disappearance. A number of human rights mechanisms including the UN Committee Against Torture, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, have all called for his whereabouts to be revealed, to no avail.”

In October 2013, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child once more expressed its concern about the situation of the 11th Panchen Lama. The Committee stated that it was “deeply disturbed” that China “has not allowed any independent expert to visit and confirm his whereabouts, the fulfillment of his rights and his well-being,” and called on China “to immediately allow an independent expert to visit” him. The Committee asked again, as it had in 2005, if China’s contention that the Panchen Lama had received higher education and was living a happy life had been confirmed by an independent authority. The Chinese official refused to respond to this question, vaguely stating that an answer would be provided at a later stage.

Gendun Choekyi Nyima’s predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama who died in 1989, was an outspoken advocate for the preservation of Tibet’s unique cultural heritage, religion and language. The 10th Panchen Lama’s “70,000 Character Petition,” remains the most extensive internal criticism of Chinese Communist Party policies ever submitted to the leadership.

The context of the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama’s comments is a deteriorating environment for Tibetan Buddhism. In particular, after overwhelmingly peaceful protests swept across Tibet in March and April 2008 – a result of the worsening situation in Tibet at that time — the Chinese authorities responded by intensifying an already established anti-Dalai Lama campaign, issuing further sweeping regulatory measures that intrude upon Tibetan Buddhist monastic affairs and implementing aggressive “legal education” programs that pressure monks and nuns to study and accept expanded government control over their religion, monasteries, and nunneries. Officials have detained, imprisoned, or beaten to death a number of monastic leaders, interfered with identification of reincarnations, and imposed a ban on travel, even for religious purposes to Mount Kailash. A harsh new ‘rectification’ drive in one area of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Driru, last year, led to the adoption of regulations, according to which monasteries deemed ‘illegal’ will be torn down and Tibetans who possess images of the Dalai Lama or place traditional prayer (mani) stones will be severely punished.

There has also been an expulsion of monks and nuns from many monasteries, particularly in the Tibet Autonomous Region. After monks from the ‘Great Three’ monasteries in Lhasa of Sera, Drepung and Ganden took to the streets in March 2008, the monastic population has been subject to intensified suppression and the strengthening of control mechanisms. Hundreds of monks have been expelled and arrested from these three monasteries, leading to serious fears for their survival as religious institutions.

Consequently, at present, monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region that once housed thousands of monks are now reduced to a few hundred whose main responsibility appears less to undertake religious study and more to tend to the buildings and tourists.

Chinese authorities have been characterizing Tibetan language, culture and monasteries as sources of instability. In his speech, Gyaltsen Norbu re-frames the issue by depicting them as a source of “stability,” saying: “Tibetan Buddhism is capable of playing a huge role in national economic and social development, and social harmony and stability.”

Interestingly, Gyaltsen Norbu gives a higher number of monks and nuns in Tibetan areas than acknowledged in official statistics. He refers to 1,787 religious venues with 46,000 resident monks and nuns in the Tibet Autonomous Region, plus 783 monasteries and 68,000 monks and nuns in Sichuan, and 660 monasteries and 44,500 monks and nuns in Qinghai. This is a total of 158,500, not including the Tibetan areas in Gansu and Yunnan. The figure of 46,000 resident monks in the Tibet Autonomous Region has been standard in official representations since the 1990s. In 2012, the then United Front Work Department official Zhu Weiqun gave the figure of 140,000 monks and nuns in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas.

Gyaltsen Norbu has visited a number of Tibetan monasteries in recent years and makes specific reference in his speech to particular areas, for instance, to the western area of Tibet where the sacred Mount Kailash is situated, stating: “I went to Ngari, and I learned: Ngari [Chinese: Ali, Tibet Autonomous Region] has 75 monasteries, and not one of them can hold a Buddhist meeting [in accordance with proper religious procedures and protocols.]”

There is stringent oversight of Gyaltsen Norbu’s activities and management of his public appearances by Party officials. Although Chinese authorities have been making great efforts to make the Tibetan people revere Gyaltsen Norbu, there is little evidence that they have succeeded. After arriving in exile in India, a monk from Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, the main monastery of the Panchen Lama, told ICT: “Since Gyaltsen Norbu was chosen as the Gya Panchen Lama, the majority of monks have lost their trust in the monastery, as well as lacking loyalty to the Chinese choice. When Gyaltsen Norbu visits [our monastery], you are not allowed to leave for two days before and after his visit, or it will be considered a political act. Usually young monks don’t display his photos in our rooms but elderly monks, for example my teacher, they always tell us to display it but they say, ‘Don’t worry. Just do whatever they say. If you don’t accept him from your heart then it doesn’t make any difference whether you display his photo or not.’”

Similarly, in the Chinese community, Tibet’s religious culture is inspiring millions inside the PRC; increasing numbers of Chinese people are becoming practitioners, with many making devout pilgrimages to Tibet, or following Tibetan lamas. In January, a former Chinese Communist Party official Xiao Wunan invited the BBC into his home in Beijing and showed the reporters evidence of his own practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and video footage of his audience with the Dalai Lama. Today, some popular Tibetan lamas have tremendous influence and following among Chinese, but Gyaltsen Norbu does not figure among them.

Overall, the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama’s comments are made in the context of a complex, changing picture in Tibet. Beyond the stringent measures of state control, there are other social and economic factors involved in the decline in numbers of monks at many monastic institutions. Those factors are beyond the scope of this report but have been the subject of some scholarly research.

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