By Vijay Kranti
China is now busy playing its own version of the Taliban in Tibet. In the latest chapter of this campaign, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) replayed the act of Bamiyan twice within a month. First, in December last year and then a month later in January this year, the Chinese authorities in Tibet demolished two massive statues of Buddha in the Kham region of Tibet in Sichuan province. The first victim was a 99 feet high statue of Buddha and giant prayer wheels surrounding the statue. Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan, who are committed to cleansing the country of anything which is non-Islamic or does not go along their own definition of Islam, the Chinese government is cleansing Tibet of every such thing which does not conform to President Xi Jinping’s definition of ‘Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese socialist character’. The statue of Shakya Muni Buddha and the colourful prayer wheels were built by the local Tibetan community of Drago, a Tibetan town in Sichuan, in October 2015 at the cost of about 40 million Yuans.
About three weeks later, on January 6 this year, the Chinese authorities demolished another similar statue. The demolition was accompanied by the arrest of dozens of monks and lay Tibetans who opposed this destruction. Reports about more arrests are still pouring out of Tibet.
According to Tibet Watch, a Dharamshala based human rights group, both of these Drago statue projects were executed by the Tibetan community after taking formal approval of local Chinese authorities. But it was following President Xi Jinping’s dramatic visit to Tibet in July last year and his call to the administrators and party cadres in Tibet to establish ‘Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese socialist character’, the authorities declared that the height of the statues was too much and beyond acceptable limits. They also cancelled earlier permissions for the construction and ordered its demolition.
This act of China has revived ugly memories of 2001 when the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan had demolished two historic and giant statues of Lord Buddha in Bamiyan.
Celebrating the blasting of these fifteen centuries-old statues, the erstwhile Taliban leader Mullah Omar had showered praise on the perpetrators of this act, saying, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them.” Interestingly, it is now President Xi’s diktat that is catching momentum these days inside Tibet.
In both demolition cases in Drago, the action was personally supervised by Wong Dongsheng, the local Chinese head of CCP in the County. He has been already in international news for the destruction of the world-famous Buddhist township of Larung Gar. This religious community had evolved as a prominent Buddhist Academy where thousands of Buddhist scholars and practitioners had joined from many parts of Tibet and China over the past many years. Worried over the ever-increasing number of practitioners in Larung Gar, hundreds of practitioners’ homes were bulldozed by Wong in June 2016 on the pretext of ‘environment protection’.
Reacting to this demolition in Drago, Gonpo Dhundup, international President of Tibetan Youth Congress, said, “Latest destruction of Buddha statues in a Tibet, which has remained under tight colonial control of the CCCP and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), for past seven decades simply reflects fear and sense of insecurity in the heart of President Xi Jinping and his communist colleagues. They are always afraid of any organization, idea or a symbol which is not communist but is still liked by the masses.” Some Tibet and China observers remind examples of historic communist crackdowns on Falun Gong in the 1990s and the ruthless crushing of democratic movement of Chinese youths in 1989. All these developments reflect the levels of extraordinary annoyance among the Chinese communist leaders who feel uncomfortable with any idea or organization growing in size or popularity among the masses.
Falun Gong, founded by a popular practice master Li Hongzhi, is an advanced practice of the Buddha school of self-cultivation that follows the “Zhen-Shan-Ren” principle of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance is accompanied by five specific body exercises, somewhat similar to Yoga. During the 1990s, Falun Gong had caught the imagination of Chinese people in a big way. As it touched 100 million figures of followers across China, the organization was forcefully banned and haunted by the Jiang Zemin government during later years of the decade. Since then, Falun Gong has been the target of a massive propaganda campaign run by CCP inside China and on international forums. In a detailed discussion with this author some time ago, Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada of 2015, spoke about how millions of Chinese followers of Falun Gong are still being harassed in China while thousands of them disappeared untraced under Chinese detention and died as victims of organ harvesting.
A few days prior to the demolitions of Buddha statues in Drago, all Tibetan schools established by local Tibetan communities and monasteries in Eastern Tibet were pulled down and closed on government orders.
Under the Beijing government’s latest policy, all Tibetan students are now obliged to study through Chinese Mandarin as the sole medium of teaching. Hence these make-shift schools were being run by Tibetan community enthusiasts to impart Tibetan language teaching to Tibetan children after regular school hours. This new campaign of President Xi of eliminating Tibetan national identity has revived horrible memories of the 1950s when PLA had conducted aerial bombing of monasteries in this region, which had become nerve centres of armed resistance by locals, monks and nuns against occupying PLA forces.
Later in the 1960s, Comrade Mao’s Red Guards occupied, ransacked, and destroyed thousands of monasteries and temples during a decade long ‘Cultural Revolution’ with the hope that the absence of religion from the lives of Tibetan people would help them in becoming patriotic Chinese citizens.
Recent news from Tibet indicates the establishment of numerous big regional boarding school campuses across Tibet by the CCP. According to these accounts, Tibetan parents are being forced to send their children, including kids as young as four, to these boarding schools. Established in line with mass concentration camps in Xinjiang, yet another colony of China and earlier known as the ‘Republic of East Turkistan’, these Tibetan schools have been branded as mass’ brainwashing factories’ by human rights experts. In November last year, Chinese authorities in the Qinghai province (originally known as ‘Amdo’ province of pre-1951 Tibet) issued orders to all Tibetan communist cadres and government employees to stop participating in any religious activity in public or inside their homes. They were warned that activities like ‘Kora’, taking a circumambulation walk around a temple, or even keeping statues of Buddhist deities in their home altars would invite strict action. This action could be sacked from the government job and stopping special privileges like their children’s education.
Since China occupied Tibet in 1951, Beijing’s propaganda machinery has been in overdrive to prove to the world that China’s rule over Tibet over the past seven decades has been benevolent to the Tibetan people. But its latest campaign against Tibetan religious symbols, religious practitioners and Tibetan language in Tibet indicate that the Chinese government has failed to win the hearts of its Tibetan subjects.
President Xi’s current focus on establishing ‘Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese socialist character’ is an inadvertent admission of this failure. His new campaign of destroying every symbol representing Tibet and Tibetan culture is an inadvertent admission of this failure and his personal metamorphosis into a ‘Taliban with Chinese socialist character’.
(Views expressed are his own)
The author is a senior Indian journalist, photographer and a keen Tibet watcher for over four decades. During the first decade of 2000’s he visited Tibet many times on his self assigned learning and photo-expeditions. He is Chairman, Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies and Engagement, New Delhi.