T HE COMMUNIST Party chief of Tibet, Wu Yingjie, replied in January to a letter from a yak-herder living on the outskirts of the region’s capital, Lhasa. According to state media, the author, Sonam Tsering, had expressed gratitude to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, for his “happy life”, and to the party for providing care “as warm as the sun”. Mr Wu asked the farmer to spread this story to others in order to encourage them, too, to love Mr Xi “from the bottom of their hearts”. He also made clear what was not responsible for Sonam Tsering’s happiness: Tibetan Buddhism and its leader, the Dalai Lama. Mr Wu wrote that Tibetans must “reduce religious consumption”, eliminate the Dalai Lama’s “negative influence” and “follow the party’s path”.
Listen to this story Your browser does not support the
The party has long vilified the Dalai Lama, who escaped to India in 1959, as the treasonous overseer of an “evil clique” that seeks to split Tibet from China. Since 2007 the government has even claimed sole legal authority over his reincarnation (he is 85 and, says an aide, in “excellent health”). But in recent months officials have intensified their efforts to eradicate the Dalai Lama from the religious lives of China’s 6.3m Tibetans, of whom less than half live in Tibet itself, with most of the others in neighbouring areas of the Tibetan plateau. They have also been trying to persuade Tibetans to pay less attention to their faith and show more enthusiasm for Mr Xi and the party. It is the latest stage in a decades-long attempt to crush Tibetan identity.
The Tibetan religion is undergoing what the party calls “sinicisation”. Although different methods are involved, the process echoes a campaign in neighbouring Xinjiang to do the same to Islam, the faith of most of that region’s 12m ethnic Uyghurs. The purpose is to eliminate religious influences from outside China, especially from the Dalai Lama (on the Tibetan plateau) and from radical Islamic groups (in Xinjiang). In both regions, the party’s efforts amount to an assault not only on religion, but on cherished cultural traditions. Chen Quanguo, the party boss in Xinjiang, was Mr Wu’s predecessor. While in Tibet Mr Chen tried out some of the heavy-handed security tactics which later, in Xinjiang, he developed into a vast network of “re-education” camps for Uyghurs.
The party has taken its campaign to horrific extremes in Xinjiang because it fears that the region may turn into a hotbed of terrorism (over the years, Uyghurs have staged several bloody attacks). In Tibet the party has big worries about stability, too. An explosion of unrest across the plateau in 2008 prompted a security clampdown there and tighter restrictions on travel to Tibet by foreigners (journalists are rarely admitted). After that, a series of public self-immolations by desperate Tibetans kept the authorities on high alert.
But officials in Tibetan areas have not replicated the worst atrocities in Xinjiang, which America has contentiously called “genocide”, though they do not involve killing (see article). In Xinjiang, more than 1m Uyghurs have been sent to the new gulag, where they supposedly learn job skills. In Tibet, many farmers (including Sonam Tsering, the herder near Lhasa) have been moved in the past decade to more modern housing in or near towns and cities. Hundreds of thousands have been admitted to vocational training centres set up by the government. But most observers believe this has been far more voluntary than in Xinjiang.
As in Xinjiang, however, sinicisation—though officially limited to religious affairs—involves a much broader effort to make ethnic-minority residents feel they belong to China. In schools, “patriotic education” is emphasised. Mandarin has replaced Tibetan in most classes. Surveillance has been stepped up. Networks of informers relay information to the state; smartphones are tapped. Just as Uyghurs can no longer make pilgrimages to Mecca, it has become almost impossible for Tibetans to travel to India to attend religious teachings given by the Dalai Lama, as many did before Mr Xi took power in 2012.
Unlike Uyghurs, Tibetans can still keep in touch with friends and relatives outside China using WeChat, a social-media app, without fear of arrest. But they are cautious. Posting images online of the Dalai Lama can be an imprisonable offence. In December a 30-year-old herdsman, Lhundup Dorjee, was sentenced to a year in prison for posting a lunar new-year greeting from the Dalai Lama on WeChat. The charge was “splitting the nation”.
In December and January officials seized the mobile phones of dozens or hundreds of members of a WeChat group of Tibetans in and from Xiahe, a monastery town in Gansu province which borders on Tibet, says a member of the group who lives in exile. Participants had used the app to discuss sensitive topics, such as the life of the Dalai Lama and America’s passage in December of a law calling for sanctions against Chinese officials if they interfere in the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. In the 2000s Tibetans still kept images of the Dalai Lama in their homes. Now many display photographs of Mr Xi as well as of Mao Zedong and other former leaders of China (see picture). These are handed out by officials along with gifts of rice, clothes or cash. Refusing the presents, and the photos, may incur reprisals.
As in Xinjiang, the party is planning ahead. “It seems these policies are aimed at creating future Tibetans who won’t know about the Dalai Lama as having any role in Tibetan Buddhism except as an enemy,” says Robbie Barnett, a scholar of Tibetan culture. But there are still occasional signs of resistance among the young. In January Tenzin Nyima, a 19-year-old monk, died from injuries apparently sustained while in custody in a Tibetan area of Sichuan province. He had been detained in August for spreading news about his earlier arrest for distributing leaflets and shouting slogans calling for Tibet’s independence.
Officials fear that when the Dalai Lama dies, distraught Tibetans may once again stage big protests. The party would rather not be accused of crushing acts of mourning—better to deter people from displaying grief well beforehand by incessant waving of an iron fist. At a convention in August of officials involved in Tibet-related policy, Mr Xi called on schools to teach “patriotism” more thoroughly. The party, Mr Xi said, should “plant the seeds of loving China in the depths of the hearts of every teenager”. It will be a long struggle. ■