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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Panchen Politics: Can Beijing win Tibetan hearts?

March 25, 2010

Phayul Op/ed News
March 23, 2010
By Tsering Tsomo

"Everything we do, we do to ensure that the people live a happier life with
more dignity and to make our society fairer and more harmonious."

-- Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in his annual speech on March 4 at the opening
of National People's Congress in Beijing.

A few days before, Wen's government had appointed the 20-year-old Gyaltsen
Norbu, the Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama, as one of the 13 new members of
the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative
Conference (CPPCC), the top advisory body to China's parliament. After
becoming a CPPCC member, Norbu expressed a higher responsibility in his
"mission of safeguarding national unity and ethnic solidarity"[Xinhua, March
5]. Norbu's ascendance to CPPCC membership although viewed by some analysts
as his coming-out-party on the much-politicized ethnic scene in the PRC, it
is also a routine move symbolizing the "preferential treatment" of Tibetan
minorities in the policy-making process of the one party state. Since 1950s,
China has attempted to cultivate a support base of highly influential
Tibetan spiritual leaders who are "loyal and patriotic" to the party.

In yet another move to raise the profile of Norbu, Beijing hosted in 2006
the first World Buddhist Forum where Norbu was one of the key speakers at
the opening ceremony. Notwithstanding the dissonance of an atheist regime
hosting a religious event, state media quoted Norbu as saying that
Buddhism's responsibility was "to foster patriotism and national unity". On
his second rare visit in 1999 to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the traditional
seat of the Panchen Lamas in Shigatse in Tibet Autonomous region (TAR),
Xinhua reported that the then 9-year-old Norbu while performing a religious
ceremony had "urged Tibetan Buddhists to obey the instructions of President
Jiang Zemin and love the socialist Chinese motherland".

For the past 14 years, Beijing has kept Norbu under strict watch; his
movements restricted to areas in and around Beijing. As an 11-year-old,
Norbu also visited Shanghai and Zhejiang provinces surrounded as always by a
heavy posse of security guards and officials. He is often shown on state
televisions meeting Chinese leaders and leading religious ceremonies. His
education is confined to Beijing where a special school for "living Buddhas"
(Beijing's term for reincarnated religious leaders) called the China
Advanced Institute of Tibetan Buddhism trains reincarnated Tibetan spiritual
leaders. In 2000, People's Daily reported the successful "education" of over
50 "living Buddhas" since 1978 in Beijing. In recent times, Beijing's subtle
sophisticated style of repression has seen a similar "living Buddha" school
being built in Lhasa's Chushul (Ch: Quishu) county. Last year, China's state
television CCTV beamed footages of Gyaltsen Norbu touring the school's
construction site.

The past 14 years also saw an aggressive and swaggering China rejecting all
calls and appeals for information on the condition of Gedun Choekyi Nyima,
the boy recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama
following the Tibetan tradition of identifying a reincarnation. In 1995
three days after Nyima's recognition, the 6-year-old boy along with his
family went missing. Beijing later admitted that the boy was in "protective
custody" without providing any corresponding evidence. Sustained inquiries
from the international community led by none other than the then UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson failed to elicit any response
from Beijing.

Official order bans Nyima's pictures in Tibet. But Tibetans still discuss in
hushed tone the fate of Nyima while watching in stunned amusement the
spectacle surrounding Norbu, also called "Jiang Zemin's Panchen" or "Gya
(Chinese) Panchen" by the Tibetans. (Norbu is Tibetan.) In Tibet, for
instance, the ubiquitous music videos of Tibetan singers do not feature
portraits of Beijing's Panchen; the defiance is obvious given the fact that
most Tibetan singers commonly prefer showing pictures of their root lamas in
videos. Instead they show the previous 10th Panchen's pictures.

With the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse reduced to a venue for political
gimmicks and the real Panchen still in Chinese custody, the Tibetan exiles
have built a Tashi Lhunpo in exile located in Bylakkuppe Tibetan settlement
in south India. In 2008 when Nyima turned 18 the abbot of the exile Tashi
Lhunpo Monastery, Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tseten, told the India-based Tibetan
Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD): "at this stage in his
studies, the Panchen Lama should have completed or be near completion of the
second of the five major subjects of Tibetan Buddhism known as Madhyamarg
(the Middle Way), in addition to texts on the Perfection of Wisdom." With
his "disappearance", the Panchen Lama cannot receive oral transmissions and
other trainings crucial to the comprehensive development of this very
important lineage system in Tibetan Buddhism.

The system of reincarnation is one of the core beliefs of Tibetan religious
tradition. Tibetans believe that the reincarnated lamas as lineage holders
are the key to the survival of Tibetan religion and belief systems; they
have ensured the continuity of Tibetan Buddhism over thousands of years.
Chinese imposition of its own Panchen Lama violates this core belief system.
It also paves way for more politicized reincarnations including the Dalai
Lama and endangers the essence of Tibetan religion not to mention the
prolonged religious strife it could trigger in future. Without the real
Panchen Lama in the Tibetan firmament, there has formed a void that slowly
eats at the core of Tibetan faith and by extension their culture, value
system, their distinctive existence as a people deserving of freedom to be
who they are. The consequences are beyond religious.

Aware of the close link between religion and Tibetan identity, China has
from the beginning targeted Tibetan Buddhism. In the 1950s, monasteries,
temples and sacred scriptures and artifacts were destroyed; and monks and
nuns were subjected to violent physical and ideological attacks. The
Cultural Revolution snuffed out what remained of the destruction wrought by
the so-called democratic reforms in 1950s. As far back in 1962, even before
the Cultural Revolution hurricane, the previous 10th Panchen Lama, as
vice-chairman of CPPCC expressed concerns over the fate of Tibetan Buddhism:
'Those who have religious knowledge will slowly die out, religious affairs
are stagnating, knowledge is not being passed on, there is worry about there
being no training for new people, and so we see the elimination of Buddhism,
which was flourishing in Tibet and which transmitted teachings and
enlightenment. This is something which I and more than 90% of Tibetans
cannot endure."

Today the spiritual heads of four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the
indigenous Bon religion are in exile. They are not in "self-imposed" exile
as Beijing would like us to believe. They were driven out of their land,
forced to seek another space to freely revive their faith and culture. Lack
of highly educated religious teachers is often cited as one of the main
reasons why many Tibetan monks and nuns leave Tibet for exile. The continued
devotion and loyalty to the Dalai Lama among Tibetans in and outside Tibet
has spurred Beijing to introduce various measures cloaked in legal terms to
undermine his authority and annihilate traditional mores of Tibetan
Buddhism. Because the Dalai Lama is a powerful symbol of Tibetan religious
and cultural identity, Beijing has since the 1990s officially sanctioned
widespread denunciation campaigns against the Tibetan leader in and outside

In Tibet, religion has been so highly politicized that even routine repair
of monastic buildings needs official approval. The fair-sounding Democratic
Management Committees (DMCs) established since 1950s in every big and small
monastery and temple act as the ears and the eyes of the party. Members to
DMCs are partly elected and partly appointed by Bureau of Religious Affairs.
Beijing says DMC "receives guidance and support from relevant government
departments in charge of religious affairs" [100 Questions on Tibet, Beijing
Review, 1989]. In addition to living under surveillance, monks and nuns have
to attend political indoctrination classes where they are taught by "work
teams" to pledge their allegiance to the party and denounce the Dalai Lama.
Special handbooks on "anti-splittism", "education on policy on religion",
etc, are distributed at these "patriotic re-education" classes. Some classes
last for weeks and some for months but nobody can complain over the
disruption of normal religious classes and the psychological pressure borne
by monks and nuns. Denouncing the Dalai Lama in speech and writing required
in such brainwashing process represents for the deeply devout Tibetans the
highest act of blasphemy. These "work teams" functions under "patriotic
associations" which is supervised by State Administration for Religious
Affairs (SARA) and the Communist Party's United Front Department. SARA is a
department directly under the State Council, the top decision making body in

Reports have surfaced in recent years of monks succumbing to suicides in the
aftermath of political indoctrination classes. In a June 2009 report
submitted to UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief,
TCHRD listed 17 known cases of suicides and two cases of attempted suicide
since Mar. 2008 among monks and nuns. Many flee into exile to avoid this
psychological torture.

On his arrival in exile in the United States, the former abbot of Kumbum
Monastery, Arjia Rinpoche said: "Had I remained in Tibet I would have been
forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and my religion and to serve the Chinese
government. This also meant participating in government practices that went
against my religion and personal beliefs. As Abbot of the Kumbum Monastery,
I would have been forced to help the government have its choice of the
Panchen Lama accepted by the Tibetan people. This would violate my deepest
beliefs. It was at this point that I knew I must leave my country."

In 1998, after hearing Beijing's plan to make him the tutor of Gyaltsen
Norbu, Arjia Rinpoche decided to escape. "My political life was betraying my
religious and moral principles", he wrote in his recently-released memoir
Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan lama's account of 40 years under Chinese

Monks and nuns are also the first to be targeted under the "Strike Hard"
campaign, a so-called anti-crime drive used in Tibet to root out unpatriotic
political elements. The crackdown on Tibetan Buddhism was officially
endorsed at the 1994 Third Work Forum. Campaigns of political indoctrination
and atheism were intensified not only in religious institutions but also
among lay people in remote farming and herding areas. Textbooks such as "A
Reader for Advocating Science and Technology and Doing Away with
Superstitions" were issued by the Propaganda Department of the CCP to remove
the influence of religion. In Aug. 2006, Zhang Qingli, the TAR party
secretary told Der Spiegel: "We are organizing patriotic education
everywhere, not just in the monasteries."

In 2000, religion was identified as a key element of Tibetan identity by Li
Dezhu, head of Ethnic Affairs Commission who saw it as an obstacle to
stability and development in Tibet. Li also wrote a "textbook on destroying
independent cultures and disintegrating religious minorities by promoting
materialism". [Times Online, UK, March 28, 2008]. In a 2007 article
published in a party journal, the "party's racial theoretician", as Li is
often known, also called for an end to preserving minority cultures and
instead suggested to refashion them.

In Tibetan society, spiritual leaders have traditionally commanded deep
respect and devotion among the masses. Lacking legitimacy in the eyes of
Tibetans, the authorities often seek help from influential spiritual leaders
to mediate disputes or enforce law and order. Many of them are involved in
philanthropic activities in their communities in addition to guiding lives
and giving solace to a vast majority of people. Beijing resents this
parallel moral authority wielded by highly-revered religious leaders whose
influence both legitimizes and delegitimizes Chinese rule in Tibet.

Document 19 that guides the overall religious policy in PRC does not allow
religion in public sphere and therefore criminalizes traditional forms of
religion particularly in Tibet where religion is intricately linked to both
social and personal sphere. It also poses problems for the socially-active
religious leaders in Tibet.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche is a typical case. Once a highly-revered Buddhist
leader in Lithang in eastern Tibet, Delek is now serving life in prison on
false charges of "exploding bombs and distributing separatist leaflets." In
2002, he was arrested and sentenced to death which was later commuted to
life in prison. He was a great philanthropist; a fearless advocate for
environmental conservation; and a respected mediator between Tibetans and
Chinese. Last December, another Buddhist leader from Kardze in Sichuan
province, Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche was sentenced to eight and a half years in
prison for "illegal possession of weapons and ammunition and
misappropriation of government-owned buildings." The two Chinese lawyers who
initially represented Phurbu Rinpoche said the charges lacked "factual
clarity and sufficient evidence."

As necessity leads to innovation, some spiritual leaders to avoid official
interference had tried to build new monastic encampments called gars that
are different from large traditional monasteries. Traditional monasteries
especially those built before 1959 normally attract more attention from the
"re-education" officials. But gars met with the same tragedy: in 2001, over
1,000 monastic quarters at the famous Larung Gar religious institute in
Sichuan province were demolished and nuns and monks were evicted despite
resistance. Founded by the highly charismatic teacher Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok,
at its peak over 10,000 monks and nuns including nearly a thousand Chinese
students studied there. Soon after, Khenpo Jig-Phun died due to
complications likely connected to the pressure and shock of the crackdown.
The same year authorities destroyed monastic dwellings at Yachen Gar in
Payul (Ch: Baiyu) county in Sichuan expelling students including about 1,000
Chinese-speaking students from China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.

In 2007, decades of religious repression reached its nadir with the passage
of "Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism"
that established in legal terms the absolute authority of Communist Party of
China in identifying and selecting Tibetan reincarnations. Every process
related to reincarnation including the enthronement, education and religious
training is under party's supervision. A reincarnation without the approval
of the party is "illegal" and "invalid". This law only formalized what has
been around for decades and is a major move by the authorities to
"normalize" Tibetan Buddhism. The 2007 law was not only an attempt to
legitimize Beijing's Panchen - who was close to his 18th birthday when it
was passed - but it provides Beijing a "legal" means to justify and validate
future interferences.

The hope however lies in the sheer devotion for Gedun Choekyi Nyima and his
predecessor the 10th Panchen Lama among Tibetans across generations. The
previous 10th Panchen Lama was known for his courage and outspokenness
against Chinese policies in Tibet. His famous 70,000 character petition, a
damning indictment of Chinese rule in Tibet, and various other speeches are
being read by a younger generation of Tibetans. Commenting on the
significance of the 1962 petition, the late Tibetan historian Prof. Dawa
Norbu wrote, "No Chinese (with the possible exception of Peng Dehuai), and
certainly no other leader of a national minority, had dared to challenge
Communist policies so fundamentally within the PRC since its founding in
1949, as the Panchen Lama did in 1962 and 1987."

In his last speech in 1989 in Shigatse, the previous Panchen Lama called for
the Dalai Lama to be allowed to collaborate with him in devising Tibet
policy (At the time, he was accompanied by the then TAR party secretary Hu
Jintao). Around same time, in an article in a Chinese daily, he wrote that
the price paid by Tibet under Chinese rule had been greater than the gains.
Three days after the speech, he died leaving behind a string of questions on
circumstances leading to his sudden death. He was only 51.

The hope also lies in the precedents set by the life and work of the
previous 10th Panchen Lama. He made it difficult for Beijing to create a
wedge between the institutions of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. He proved
that repression and political indoctrination are weak and foolish strategies
to win Tibetan hearts. It is true happiness is relative. But it is
indisputable that real happiness springs from the heart and when the heart
is inflicted with repeated wounds, happiness remains an elusive dream.

Perhaps Wen has a different definition of happiness.
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