ICT Inside Tibet: children banned from prayer during holy month and intensification of border security

  • New ruling bans Tibetan children from prayer during holy month
  • Influx of tour guides reveals political agenda
  • Transformation of Dram on Nepal border to base for troops, strengthening border security

New ruling bans Tibetan children from prayer during holy month

In a new ruling issued in May, teachers and parents at a school in Lhasa were ordered to prevent children from participating in religious activities during the important Buddhist anniversary month of Saga Dawa. A document circulated by a primary school in Lhasa on May 27, 2017 stated that parents must take the responsibility of making sure their children “are not involved in any type of superstitious and religious activity” during their summer holiday, and that the parents must not engage in such practice either.

The sacred time of Saga Dawa, the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, is seen as a good time for Buddhist practice through offering prayers, giving alms to beggars, refraining from eating meat and seeking to act with compassion and kindness.[1] The instructions issued by the Je-bumgang (Chinese: Ji Peng Gang) Elementary School in Lhasa gave clear instructions that children should not participate in such actions, evidence of the Chinese authorities targeting a younger generation as part of a systematic ideological drive to “dilute the negative impact of religion” specified in a recent state media report.

A political campaign in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) known as the ‘four loves’ specified this objective, linked to promoting loyalty to Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership as part of an intensified control agenda in the year of the 19th Party Congress.[2] The focus on preventing children from expressing religious devotion is part of a new, tougher phase in the CCP’s broader efforts to control Tibet through replacing loyalty to the Dalai Lama with allegiance to CCP policy, which has led to fears of the evisceration of Tibetan national and religious identity.

Ideological campaigns are being increasingly emphasized at higher levels of the education system in Tibet. Early in May, the Sichuan Party Committee held a political work conference in Chengdu for universities and colleges in order to “convey and implement of Xi Jinping’s key instructions on ideological and political work”.[3]

The meeting was addressed by the Party Secretary of Sichuan Wang Dongming, as well as his Deputy, Deng Xiaogang, who was promoted to the post this year from an earlier prominent post as Deputy Party Secretary of the TAR, and who has been particularly associated with the security crackdown in Lhasa and beyond.[4] The meeting signaled that enforcing allegiance to the CCP and central leadership is being prioritized in all higher education institutions in addition to the political campaigns in monasteries, lay society and schools. Wang Dongming, who succeeded the disgraced former security chief Zhou Yongkang as Party Secretary of Sichuan in 2012, announced that more attention would be paid to strengthening the “institutionalization and construction” of grass roots Party presence in universities and colleges.

The importance of influencing a young generation

Party Secretary of the TAR Wu Yingjie emphasized the importance of influencing the young generation in Party ideology in a speech in Lhasa on May 10, in which he talked about strengthening ideological and political education as the key to doing so. Wu also talked about the importance of motivating religious figures to “actively guide Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to socialist society”, which refers to the subordination of authentic religious practice to the policy of the CCP, which promotes atheism.[5]

At a meeting honoring “heroes” of the security system, Wu Yingjie made it clear that the political struggle in Tibet is on a virtual war footing, saying that “in-depth combat” was needed in order to “resolutely” fight against the “destructive sabotage of the Dalai clique”.[6] Wu Yingjie, who has spent almost his entire career in Tibet, took over as the top Party boss last September (2016), using his first statement to underline the importance of the political ‘struggle’ against the Dalai Lama.

In another shift in leadership roles, a senior official, Fang Lingmin, was removed from two posts in the TAR after just a few months. The Chinese state media announced that Zhang Yongze was appointed as Vice Chairman of the TAR government, and Zhu Qiang as Secretary General, replacing Fang Lingmin who held both posts.[7]

Zhang Yongze has worked in the TAR since the late ‘90s and specialized in hydraulics and river dynamics, which could connect him to China’s ambitious ongoing plans for damming Tibet’s rivers, a high strategic priority for the CCP.[8] Like the Tibetan heading the TAR government, Qi Zhala (Che Dalha), Zhang Yongze is from Yunnan province.

The reasons for Fang Lingmin’s dismissal are not known. There has been an intensified focus by the authorities on ensuring political loyalty to the CCP and eradication of any allegiance to the Dalai Lama – taken to a new level recently with the announcement of the use of lie-detector tests for Party cadres.[9] The Chinese authorities recently admitted that some of its officials were donating money to the Dalai Lama, which, they said, “severely undermines the Party’s fight against separatism.” (Global Times, May 1, 2017), but this would be likely to affect the careers of Tibetan rather than ethnic Chinese officials.

New batch of tour guides reflect political priorities

Forty-nine new tour guides who have a “firm political stance” began work in Lhasa in April following a ‘mobilization meeting’, indicating the Chinese Party state’s direct control over training and accreditation of tour guides. According to a report in the state media, over the last 14 years, a total of 751 national tour guides who are “politically reliable” and have “served social and economic development and tourism in Tibet” have been posted in Tibet, and the latest batch arrived in Lhasa in April.[10]

Training for tour guides prioritizes political reliability above such qualities as inter-personal skills or knowledge of Tibetan culture. A Chinese academic, Dr Songshan Huang, who worked for the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA), observes: “At the national level, CNTA organises a country-wide industry award system for nominating ‘nationally excellent tour guides’ and ‘national model tour guides’. Three criteria are applied to examine the candidate’s suitability of the final nomination: first, the candidate must demonstrate socialist ideology and working ethics of tour guides. […] Socialist ideology and political correctness overwhelm other selection criteria in the existing awards-for-excellence schemes.”[11]

Dr Huang also states that tourism was treated by the government as part of foreign affairs, and that tour guides were the ‘face’ representing the image both of the industry and the whole PRC “in its cause of striving for a form of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”[12]

Tour guiding remains a highly regulated profession in China. Since the mid-1980s, the China National Tourism Administration has been developing and refining a system of promoting, maintaining and regulating quality in the tour guiding sector, at least in part because of the important political role of tour guides.

Tour guides must adhere to a mandatory syllabus of politically acceptable interpretations of sites and scenic spots, and must pass exams and accreditation procedures done entirely in Chinese, an important reason for the lack of accredited Tibetan guides in Tibet. This is in spite of regional autonomy laws that state that Tibetan should be the primary language of all official business in any area designated as Tibetan autonomous by the state.[13]

Working as a tour guide for foreign tourists in Tibet used to be a good source of income for many Tibetans. Both foreign tourists and tourists from mainland China generally prefer to have a Tibetan person showing them the sights of Lhasa and elsewhere because they naturally speak with a degree of authority that Chinese guides may not have. However, from 2002 onwards, there were mounting official suspicions that Tibetan tour guides taken on by foreign tourists in particular were straying from the officially sanctioned version of Tibet’s history, particularly those Tibetans who had spent any time in Dharamsala, India where the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama are based.

In July 2000, 29 Tibetan tour guides from Shigatse prefecture Tourist Travel Agency were dismissed following an investigation to identify and expel guides who were exile-educated Tibet returnees.[14] In early 2003, around 160 tour guides were dismissed when they were unable to produce confirmation from their local home governments that they had never been to India, and the dismissed tour guides were replaced with people drafted from various Chinese provinces. The tourism bureau in the TAR explained that Chinese tour guides “speak a foreign language and Tibet has a shortage of tour guides who speak a foreign language” – without acknowledging, of course, that many of the Tibetans who had spent time in India went home with a degree of proficiency in English.

Border troops take charge in ‘empty’ town of Dram: drones used to strengthen border security

The Chinese state media has confirmed the transformation of the town of Dram (Chinese: Zhangmu or Zham) on the Nepalese border, with the removal of local people and intensification of troop presence since the earthquake that caused devastation in Kathmandu and across the impoverished Himalayan country and region in April 2015.

Dram was severely affected by the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck Nepal and parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region on April 25, 2015, and hit by a powerful aftershock two days later that destroyed 10% of its buildings, causing cracks or other damage to “all buildings” in the town, according to a Chinese state media report. Pictures were posted in the state media of people being evacuated from Dram.[15]

The state media report makes it clear that the relocations continued even after the rebuilding of Dram after the earthquake, in a move that is consistent with the Chinese authorities’ political objectives in the area to strengthen border security and prevent Tibetans escaping across the mountains into exile via Dram.

Dram, which clings to the mountains on the other side of the Friendship Bridge on the road into Nepal, had long been a focus for the Chinese authorities as a crucial transit place for Tibetans seeking to flee into exile. Since protests swept across Tibet in 2008, security was dramatically tightened in Dram and border areas, and as a result of this and other factors the number of Tibetans escaping into exile began to drop dramatically from 2008 onwards.

Following the earthquake, the authorities continued to relocate people from Dram to another area of Shigatse (Chinese: Rigaze) prefecture, and according to various official reports, installed more troops in the sensitive border town. A report in the Chinese media on May 2 confirmed that: “Zham, once the largest border trade port of Tibet region, is now an empty town.” (Xinhua). The Xinhua report stated that: “More than 4,250 people were evacuated from Zham four days after the massive earthquake as its geological structure was remarkably changed with possible secondary disasters. Before the earthquake, Zham port cleared about 90 percent of land-borne trade between China and Nepal.”[16]

The report, entitled ‘Soldiers work in “empty town”’ featured an image of a soldier “playing a saxophone for his comrades in arms at Gedalin frontier checkpoint” in the town. Another image showed soldiers sweeping up in front of shuttered buildings.

Another official report showed images of drones being used to strengthen security on the border. While the report stated that the drones were being used for geological surveys, it made it clear that the higher priority was to “greater expand the border patrol scope”.[17]

Party officials equate political ‘stability’ in the TAR with the security of the entire PRC, partly because Tibet is an important border area. During the Sixth Work Forum on Tibet in Beijing in August 2015, Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping referred to its critical importance to the authorities of the TAR, saying that “in administering border regions”, “we must first of all stabilize Tibet”.[18]

The two images below from the Chinese state media show drones being used in the border town of Dram (Zhangmu). The Chinese media says that the use of drones has greatly enhanced the ability to patrol the border.




Footnotes:
[1] This is because the outcomes of any action carried out during this time, good or bad, are considered to be far greater than at other times of the year.

[2] ICT report, April 20, 2017, https://www.savetibet.org/ict-inside-tibet-the-four-loves-and-the-enemy-within-new-ideological-campaign-in-tibet-reflects-heightened-agenda-of-control-in-19th-party-congress-year/

[3] Chinese state media in Chinese, May 4, 2017, extracts translated by ICT: http://www.aba-news.com.cn/Article/abyw/2017/05/04/55184.html

[4] In Lhasa, Deng Xiaogang consistently reiterated a tough approach, maintaining the current situation in Tibet of “social stability” was “complicated and grim”.

[5] Chinese state media report in Chinese, May 11, 2017, extracts translated by ICT: http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-05/11/content_767196.htm

[6] Meeting on May 27, covered by the Chinese state media on May 28 in Chinese http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-05/28/content_770324.htm

[7] China Tibet Online in English, May 23, 2017. Fang Lingmin had held the role of vice chairman of the TAR government since May, 2015, and was appointed as Secretary-General in February this year. See his resume at: http://www.top-news.top/news-12921492.html

[8] See ICT report, ‘Blue Gold: Tibet’s water and global climate change’, https://www.savetibet.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/ICT-Water-Report-2015.pdf

[9] See ICT report, May 15, 2017, https://www.savetibet.org/ict-inside-tibet-use-of-lie-detector-to-test-communist-party-members-indicates-escalation-of-control-in-tibet/

[10] Chinese online state media in Chinese, April 23, 2017, http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-04/23/content_763952.htm

[11] Songshan Huang and Betty Weiler, A review and evaluation of China’s quality assurance system for tour guiding; Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18 #7, 2010, 845-860

[12] Ibid

[13] ‘Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China’, Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, February 2005, available at english.gov.cn

[14] TCHRD report, August 16, 2000, http://www.tchrd.org/2000/08/29-tibetan-tour-guides-dismissed/

[15] http://tb.xzxw.com/zt/2015zt/nbrdz/201504/t20150429_408980.html. A translation of the report states “Up to that time, 20,000 relief workers military and civilian, and 70 heavy machines had been deployed to affected areas, and plans made for the evacuation of 29,116 people. Road access was pushed through to Rongshar to wnship in Tingri, Dram town in Nyalam and Rizur bridge in Kyirong on an emergency footing. There are still 6000 stranded in Nyalam and 170 at Rizur bridge.” The earthquake was felt quite strongly in the southern Tibet city of Shigatse (Chinese: Rigaze), the Tibet Autonomous Region, especially in the Mount Everest (Chomolangma) region and towns of Kyirong (Chinese: Jilong), Tingri (Dingri), Nyalam (Chinese: Nielamu) and Dram (Zhangmu) at the Nepal border, on the other side of the Friendship Bridge. Following the main earthquake, a 5.7 magnitude aftershock occurred later on the same day near the town of Shelkar (Chinese: Xiege’er, also called New Tingri) causing further damage. But due to tight information controls, restrictions on foreign visitors and lack of access to media, it was difficult to ascertain numbers of casualties and the extent of the damage in Tibet. Official Chinese reports referred to the deaths of 25 people in the Tibet Autonomous Region, with four missing; 2,511 buildings destroyed, 82 monasteries damaged (13 seriously), and 20,000 relief workers and 4,100 military personnel deployed (April 30, 2015). See: http://tb.xzxw.com/xw/sz/201504/t20150430_411310.html, translated into English by Matthew Akester at: https://www.facebook.com/cumoderntibet/posts/10152720160467484

[16] http://english.xzxw.com/gdtp/201705/t20170502_1788740.html

[17] ‘Drones used to patrol China-Nepal border’, April 19, 2017, China Tibet Online

[18] Xinhua, August 25, 2015.

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