China’s appropriation of Buddhism is a Threat


Soon after Xi Jinping became President of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), reports emerged of his close and personal connection with Tibetan Buddhism. There is mention of a watch given by the Dalai Lama to Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun, of Xi’s mother Qi Xin being buried with full Tibetan rites and most importantly, that Xi Jinping’s wife Peng Liyuan, is a practicing Buddhist. These facts put together make for interesting reading, but mask China’s appropriation of Buddhism, which originated in India. They also mask the actual and complete clampdown of religious activity in Tibet and the mass scale Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.

China’s efforts to push its brand of Buddhism and control everything to do with Buddhism in general have to do with the need to keep Tibet under control internally and externally, and to offset India as the land of Buddhism. That is the reality of a Xi Jinping who once worked with a Buddhist monk, Shi Youming in Zhengding (Hebei Province) in the early 1980s. The New York Times (24 March 2017) concluded on the Xi-Shi encounter prophetically by saying that Xi’s methods echo the approach of strongmen like Vladimir Putin ‘who use faith to legitimize their rule.’ China, under Xi Jinping has gone one step ahead of Mao.

If Mao conquered Tibet, and took steps to Sinicize Tibet, Xi is on a war footing, making claims to global Buddhism with serious implications not just of the religion, but for followers in India and around the world. Central to this effort is China’s persistent messaging that it alone has the right to interfere in the selection and choice of the Tibetan clergy. This includes the selection of the next Dalai Lama. China has already appointed its own candidate as the Panchen Lama and uses this puppet to brand itself as the Ambassador of Buddhism.

Beyond this, China, has invested heavily in hosting scores of Buddhists the world over through the World Buddhist Forum (WBF). The first WBF meeting was held in Fujian Province and three subsequent meetings have since been held in Wuxi (2009), Hong Kong (2012) and again in Wuxi in 2015. The WBF aims to convey to Buddhist populations in China and other countries that the Communist Party of China approves of Buddhism. These gatherings also allow China to raise the profile of the Chinese appointed Panchen Lama. The Chinese have not invited the Dalai Lama to the WBF meetings for obvious reasons and continue to describe him as a disruptive element.

The other way in which China is instrumentalizing Buddhism is by using its economic power for specific political purposes. The case of China’s investment of USD 3 billion in the development of Lumbinin (birthplace of Buddha) in Nepal, illustrates how this proactive strategy has worked. The use of Buddhism as a foreign policy tool was also evident recently when the Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka expressed his disquiet (The Island, 12 January 2023) over reports that the Dalai Lama intended to officially visit Sri Lanka. Thus far, countries like Myanmar, and Sri Lanka (Theravada followers) have remained cautious about offending China in this regard. The Chinese interference in Mongolian Buddhism reflects the true face of Chinese intent to squash any religious freedom and tolerance.

China has also offered its archaeological services to countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh to excavate its Buddhist past. Xinhua (08.01.2018) reported that a joint team of Chinese and Bangladeshis archaeologists had unearthed the remains of a Buddhist town and temple at Nateshwar in Munshiganj district of Bangladesh. The use of soft power to engage with other Buddhist countries to help repair, renovate and resurrect Buddhist institutions is visible across Theravada and Mahayana countries is South and South-East Asia. As countries across the world struggle with riding Chinese debt impinging upon their territorial sovereignty, one must be cautious that there is no free lunch!

To return to the beginning then, one must call out Xi Jinping for his masterly use of Buddhism to portray China as an acceptable power with a soft image. Xi Jinping’s stint in Hebei province and meeting with Shi Youming, probably made the former realize the value of using religion to bolster state power. Little wonder then that during a 2005 visit to Zhengding Xi Jinping called on Buddhists to unite to promote China’s biggest religion. Xi’s personal links to Buddhism in the past, have little to do with the actual practice of State control over Buddhism and its effective employment as a tool to globalize Chinese Buddhism.

The case of Tibet is illustrative in this regard. China has no love for Buddhism. All that it cares for is subjugation and curtailment of basic human rights. Taking control of Tibetan Buddhism and gradually Sinicizing it, makes it easier for China to export its brand of Buddhism. Pertinently, within Tibet the wanton destruction of monasteries and Tibetan culture in the 1950s and in more recent decades, complete state control over Tibetan religion has ensured Xi Jinping’s total consolidation. This has two implications. First, this control translates to being able to penetrate and consolidate control over Buddhist monasteries in the Indo-Himalayan belt and second, to use this influence to try and get other Buddhist sects to break ranks with the Dalai Lama.

At the end of the day, China aims to dominate the global discourse on Buddhism with its multi-pronged strategy. But its use of its economic weight and soft power with respect to Buddhism reeks of hypocrisy. The State brutality perpetrated on Tibetans and the ethnic minorities by Xi led China is completely opposite to the basic traditions of Buddhism, i.e., Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

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