Religious Liberty in Tibet: From Bad to Worse

Lamas at the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim.
Lamas at the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim. (AmarCC BY-SA 3.0)

Bitter Winter interviews Dr. Dominic Nardi, China policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

by Massimo Introvigne

On July 6, 2020, Dr. Dominic Nardi coordinated a Webinar on religious liberty in Tibet organized by USCIRF, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Its Commissioners are appointed by the President and by Congressional leaders of both political parties.

Dr. Dominic Nardi earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan, and has extensive experience living and conducting academic research in Asia. He currently serves as Supervisory Policy Analyst at USCIRF, where he focuses on China, North Korea, and Vietnam, while also supervising the Asia Team. Bitter Winter has followed the Webinar on Tibet, and after the event interviewed Dr. Nardi.

On July 6, USCIRF organized a Webinar on religious liberty in Tibet. Do you have the impression Tibet is somewhat neglected now, with most media focusing on Hong Kong and Xinjiang?

I think the attention on Hong Kong and Xinjiang has helped to remind the world about Tibet. Increasingly, religious groups realize that they need to work together in order to combat China’s crackdown on religious freedom. Uyghur activists are lobbying for Tibetans, while Christians are speaking out on behalf of Uyghur Muslims. In addition, USCIRF and the rest of the U.S. government have remained focused on Tibet. We are very encouraged by the recent passage of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act and the introduction of the Tibetan Policy and Support Act in Congress.

Is the religious freedom situation in Tibet getting worse? Do you have specific examples?

While the Chinese government has suppressed Tibetan Buddhism for decades, religious freedom conditions in Tibet have gotten worse since 2011​. The government has created an Orwellian surveillance network across the region to monitor and suppress support for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The government has also become more brazen in destroying important Tibetan cultural centers. Last summer, the government razed half of the Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist complex in Sichuan Province and expelled thousands of monks.

Laws against gangs are used against religious dissidents. How do these laws work?

In January 2018, the government​ adopted a nationwide “anti-gang crime” campaign. However, authorities in Tibet cite this law as justification to crack down on noncriminal advocacy work by Tibetan Buddhists. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, courts have sentenced at least 51 Tibetans to prison under “anti-gang” charges for peacefully petitioning or protesting issues related to religion, environmental protection, land rights, and corruption. Authorities have also cited this anti-gang campaign to search homes for photographs of the Dalai Lama. The government’s use of this law to target activities that have nothing to do with criminal gangs is a clear abuse of power.

During the Webinar, concern was expressed about a crackdown on the use and teaching of Tibetan language. Do you have more details?

The Chinese government has increased restrictions on the use of the Tibetan language in schools and instead has promoted the use of Mandarin Chinese. Middle and high schools have taught in Mandarin since the 1960s, but during the past decades elementary schools and kindergartens have switched to Mandarin. USCIRF is concerned that these policies could effectively suppress knowledge and learning of the Tibetan language.

Based on the CCP attitude asserting control of lama reincarnation in Tibet, it seems probable that when the current Dalai Lama, who just turned 85, will die, the CCP will pick up its own reincarnation and introduce it to the world as the new Dalai Lama. What can be done to expose this plot in advance?

USCIRF urges Congress to swiftly pass the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. This bill would establish as official U.S. policy that the succession or reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, including a future 15th Dalai Lama, is an exclusively religious matter that should be made solely by the Tibetan Buddhist community. It would also authorize the U.S. government to enact targeted sanctions against any Chinese official found to be interfering in the succession or reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhist leaders.

What about the (real) Panchen Lama, the one recognized by the Dalai Lama and kidnapped by the Chinese in 1995, when he was six year old, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima? Do you believe the Chinese claims that he lives a normal life in China?

USCIRF cannot believe the Chinese government’s “claims” about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima unless it provides evidence about his wellbeing and lets him speak with the outside world. In the meantime, USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza has adopted the Panchen Lama through USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project and continues to advocate on his behalf.

We are sometimes left with the impression that Tibet is a “lost cause, and very few governments, apart from the United States, care about human rights there. Is this a realistic impression?

USCIRF is disappointed that the international community has not taken a stronger stand against China’s crackdown on religious freedom. We urge the United Nations and other governments to hold the Chinese government accountable to the standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

No cause is “lost” until we give up. USCIRF knows from experience that change can come suddenly and unexpectedly. We were pleasantly surprised last year when Sudan’s transitional government made concrete commitments to improving religious freedom conditions. USCIRF will continue to advocate on behalf of Tibetan Buddhists and other religious groups in China until they are able to practice their faith in peace.

Will the Tibetan Policy and Support Act become law in the United States anytime soon? If yes, what will it change?

The Tibetan Policy and Support Act is currently in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. USCIRF urges the Senate to pass the bill promptly. If the bill is passed, it would help deny legitimacy to any Tibetan religious leader selected by the Communist Party and without the participation of the Tibetan Buddhist community. In addition, we hope that the threat of targeted sanctions will make Chinese officials think twice about interfering in the selection or reincarnation process for future Tibetan leaders. Finally, the bill would require the State Department to open a consulate in Lhasa, which—if successful—would increase the ability of U.S. diplomats to monitor and report on religious freedom conditions in Tibet.

What can the USCIRF do with respect to religious freedom in Tibet? And what can independent Western media and NGOs do?

USCIRF will keep advocating on behalf of Tibetan Buddhists and making sure that U.S. policymakers give Tibet the attention it deserves. ​


Source: Bitter Winter