By Claude Arpi
16 June 2016
Beijing wants to show its critics that it is a ‘normal' secular nation but it fears faiths that are often more popular than the Communist creed, as the ban on fasting during Ramzan stands proof
Beijing insists that there is no religious discrimination in China, particularly against the Muslim populations (Uyghurs) of Xinjiang. Religious freedom has reached an ‘unparalleled’ level; it is at least what a document published by the State Council Information Office in Beijing on religious freedom in Xinjiang says. The publication coincides with the sensitive month of Ramzan.
The White Paper asserts that today, freedom of religious belief in Xinjiang “cannot be matched by that in any other historical period, and is undeniable to anyone who respects the facts.”
The White Paper even asserts that restaurants in Xinjiang are free to stay open or close during Ramzan. At a public meeting, Zhang Chunxian, the Communist Party’s boss, wished all Muslims a happy Ramzan: “Ramzan is about peace and self-reflection, as well as dedication and self-discipline,” he remarked.
This sounds good, but it is official rhetoric only: A ban on fasting has been declared on several categories of people. AFP mentioned a notice posted on the Government website which says: “Party members, cadres, civil servants, students and minors must not fast for Ramzan and must not take part in religious activities,” adding: “During the month of Ramzan, food and drink businesses must not close.”
This shows the dichotomy in which the Chinese Government has put itself. Beijing wants to show its critics that it is a ‘normal’ secular nation, but at the same time, it fears faiths often more popular than the Communist creed.
In the recent years, each time that the region witnessed several clashes between the local Uyghur minority and the security forces, Beijing blamed some ‘militants’ seeking independence from China. It is not so simple because discrimination exists. Take the example of people living in border prefectures in Xinjiang; they must now give DNA samples while applying for travel documents, even within China.
The newspaper Yili Daily announced that residents of the Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture who wanted to apply for any type of immigration documents had to go to the police station near their ‘registered’ homes and provide DNA samples, fingerprints, voiceprints and a three-dimensional photo: “Applicants who failed to provide all the biological identification/information would have their applications refused,” says the newspaper.
The prefecture of Yili, bordering Kazakhstan, has an ethnically diverse population of 2.5 million people; while 64.7 per cent belongs to ethnic minorities, the rest are Han Chinese.
The number of applications for travel documents in Yili had ‘skyrocketed’ in the past year, from 20,000 in 2014 to 1, 00,000 in 2015. Why did more than 2, 00,000 apply for travel documents this year? The answer is simple: Discrimination in Xinjiang. Will the lives of the migrants be better elsewhere in China? Doubtful!
For the foreign-based Uyghur rights groups, restrictions based on religion or discrimination have added to ethnic tensions in the region. Buddhist areas suffer from ‘restrictions’ too.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) quoting a Tibetan source reported that Beijing has decided to destroy large sections of a monastery in Eastern Tibet: “Massive cuts are being planned for the number of monks and nuns allowed to live at a large Buddhist study centre.” The Larung Gar Buddhist Academy is located in Serthar county of Kardze (or Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Sichuan Province).
The monastery probably enjoys a dangerously great popularity from Chinese people: Between 20,000 and 30,000 monks and nuns, (a large proportion from the mainland) have joined the institute over the years. By September 30, 2017, the institute’s population will be capped at 5,000.
In September 2014, an article on China Tibet Online, a subsidiary of Xinhua, praised Larung Gar Five Sciences Buddhist Academy saying out that Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, the founder was “a teacher of His Holiness (sic) the Thirteenth Dalai Lama” (the article forgets to mention that the same Khenpo Phuntsok visited Dharamsala and shared teachings with the present Dalai Lama).
The Chinese website explained that Jigme Phuntsok established the Larung Gar Academy in 1980, with the aim to revitalise the Dharma: “The reason behind the selection of Serthar as the building place is primarily because it is a historically sacred place in Vajrayana. Monks go to achieve ‘rainbow body’ (a high level of spiritual achievement)… Thirteen disciples attained a rainbow body at the place.”
Amazing Communist China, speaking of ‘rainbow bodies’ (advanced lamas who can dissolve their bodies in a rainbow at the time of death)! The institute is today one of the world’s largest and most important centers for the study of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet …and in China. Following the demolition in 2001 of more than 1,000 dwellings at Larung Gar and the expulsion of hundreds of monks and nuns, the monastery, such a phoenix reappeared; today the Chinese authorities have decided to reduce its size again.
According to RFA: “This year, the authorities are talking about 1,200 members who will have to leave,” adding that, “Government officials are now marking houses that block the passage of fire fighting vehicles or the construction of roads, and dwellings targeted for demolition will be torn down by force if necessary. About 60 to 70 percent of the houses of monks and nuns are being marked for demolition.”
China’s dilemma between ‘normality’ and imposition of the Party’s diktats is best shown in a declaration of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) . Its inspectors recently criticised the Propaganda Department because “it has failed to take tough or effective action to promote ideology, control the media and the internet, and oversee universities and colleges.”
In February, the CCDI inspectors had launched a two-month review of the Department. As a result, “Dozens of rights lawyers, activists and petitioners have also been detained over the past year and the government has warned universities against using textbooks that promote Western values” says The South China Morning Post.
Despite the fact that Beijing is trying to put up a brave ‘normal’ face in the world media, religious and political intolerance has grown tremendously under Xi Jinping. In every field, the Government has stepped up to control the media, the Internet and even what is taught in the universities. In these circumstances, one understands that Islam in Xinjiang or Buddhism in Tibet are both seen as subversive ‘splittist’ ideologies.
The sad part is that some foreign companies are also sanctioning Beijing’s policies; the latest example is the cosmetic brand Lancôme, a subsidiary of L’Oréal of France, which cancelled a concert by Canto-pop star Denise Ho in Hong Kong. The crime of the young lady was to have dared to meet the Dalai Lama. ‘No good’, said Beijing, ‘You will not be allowed to sing in Hong Kong’; and Lancôme complied. The ironic part of the story is that Beijing is trying to take the lead of the Buddhist world, investing billions of yuans in ‘soft’ diplomacy. How can China be taken seriously on this?