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China’s ‘cultural genocide’ erodes Buddhist way of life

by Venkatesan Vembu, DNA India, March 23, 2008

Tibetans are being reduced to a minority in their homeland, and new legal measures suppress Buddhist activity

HONG KONG, China -- At Lhasa’s Jokhang temple, the most sacred place of worship for Tibetan Buddhists, piety manifests itself in many ways. Lines of monks and lay people, who come from afar to pray at this altar, offer prostrations by the thousands. Rosy-cheeked Tibetan children, who can barely stand on their feet, join them in the ritual.

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But at Barkhor Square, in front of the temple, the pious mood gives way to a touristy lightness of manner: Robed monks whip out cameras and have portraits taken of themselves. Throngs of tourists from other parts of China and elsewhere float past the rows of wayside shops selling Tibetan kitsch and the occasional statuette of Mao Zedong.

Wander a little further off, onto Lhasa’s streets, and it’s easy to forget you’re in the city that epitomises the core of Tibetan Buddhism. Chinese-owned karaoke bars, dance halls and massage parlours line the streets; there are even establishments that cater to those who seek pleasures of the flesh.

On the one hand, the economic development of Lhasa has opened up new jobs and business opportunities — primarily for Han Chinese, but for ethnic Tibetans too. On the other, symbols of ‘modernity’ are sweeping across Tibet like a gale force, and with each gust, a little bit of the Tibetan way of life gets blown away. Yet, it isn’t just these material changes induced by modernity that the Dalai Lama denounces as the “cultural genocide” of Tibet. The slow extermination of the Tibetan way of life happens at many other levels. 

A planned programme to alter the Tibetan areas’ demographic profile is one of them. The resettlement of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetan communities in the Tibetan areas is effectively reducing Tibetans to an ethnic minority in their traditional homeland. “The authorities’ intent is to overwhelm Tibetans by the sheer weight of numbers of Han Chinese and thereby eliminate them as a political and cultural force,” says Dr Christopher Lingle, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society.

Repression of Tibetan Buddhists’ religious worship is another pillar of the “cultural genocide”. The Communist Party, notes the latest annual report of the US Congressional Executive Commission on China, “tolerates religious activity only within strict limits… Legal measures issued in 2006 and 2007 impose unprecedented government control on Tibetan Buddhist activity.”

For a start, Tibetants are forbidden from worshipping the Dalai Lama as a religious leader or even have portraits of him. They are also forbidden from participating in ceremonies and observances associated with the strand of Tibetan Buddhism that is associated with the Dalai Lama. For instance, in May 2007, the Lhasa Party Committee forbade Tibetan school children in some Lhasa neighborhoods from participating in Tibetan Buddhism’s most holy day, Saga Dawa, or wearing ‘’amulet threads’’ (blessing strings) received at Buddhist sites.

More recently, Chinese authorities have introduced administrative measures that establish firmer controls over Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. One of the more absurd provisions, introduced in July 2007, establishes government control over the process of identifying and educating reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist teachers throughout China.

Chinese authorities have also intensified a “patriotic education” campaign under which Tibetan Buddhists are required to accept patriotism towards China as a part of Tibetan Buddhism. Monks and nuns are required to pass examinations on political texts, acknowledge that Tibet is historically a part of China, accept the legitimacy of the Panchen Lama installed by the Chinese government, and denounce the Dalai Lama.

The Communist Party emphasises economic development over cultural protection, and while that isn’t always a bad thing, in practice it has actively eroded many aspects of Tibetan culture and language. Changes in Chinese laws and regulations that address ethnic autonomy issues and that have been enacted since 2000 have decreased the extent of protection of ethnic minority language and culture.

Further, the government is “establishing greater control over the Tibetan rural population by implementing programs that will bring to an end the traditional lifestyle of the Tibetan nomadic herder by settling them in fixed communities, and reconstructing or relocating farm villages,” notes the Congressional-Executive Commission report.

“The Chinese view Tibetan culture as something like a cultural Disneyland,” says Lingle. “They’re willing to maintain it up to a point because having these curious cultural traditions can earn them tourist dollars. But it’s quite clear they would like to see the whole area being pacified and they believe the only way to do that is to ‘Sinofy’ the region. They see it as a cultural way of achieving political ends.”

Does all this amount to ‘cultural genocide’? “That’s an emotionally charged term, and I don’t like throwing these terms around fast and loose,” says Lingle. “But the end result of what’s happening in Tibet is as though there were cultural genocide.”

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