State Department International Religious Freedom Report: 2003

TIBET

The United States recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous counties and prefectures in other provinces to be a part of the People’s Republic of China. The Department of State follows these designations in its reporting. The preservation and development of the Tibetan people’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage and the protection of their fundamental human rights continue to be of concern.

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for freedom of religious belief; however, the Government maintains tight controls on religious practices and places of worship in Tibet. Although the authorities permit many traditional religious practices and public manifestations of belief, they promptly and forcibly suppress those activities viewed as vehicles for political dissent, such as religious activities that are perceived as advocating Tibetan independence or any form of separatism (which the Chinese Government describes as “splittist”).

The Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibetan areas, particularly the TAR, rendering it difficult to determine accurately the scope of religious freedom violations. Restrictions on religious practice and places of worship continued during the period covered by this report, but the atmosphere for lay practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism continued to be more relaxed. The atmosphere for religious freedom varied from region to region, and was considerably more relaxed in Tibetan autonomous areas outside the TAR. Envoys of the Dalai Lama made two visits to Tibet and China for discussions with Chinese officials during the period covered by this report. Additionally, five nuns were released from prison on humanitarian parole before their sentences were completed, and the number of religious practitioners detained or arrested on political grounds declined. However, the level of repression in Tibetan areas remained high and the Government’s record of respect for religious freedom remained poor during the period covered by this report.

The “patriotic education” campaign begun in the mid-1990s officially concluded, but activities to ensure the political reliability of monks and nuns continued at a lower level of intensity. Core requirements of “patriotic education”, such as the renunciation of the Dalai Lama and the acceptance of Tibet as a part of China, continue to engender resentment on the part of Tibetan Buddhists. Dozens of monks and nuns continue to serve prison terms for their resistance to “patriotic education.” There were no reports of the death of religious prisoners in Tibet during the period covered by this report.

The Christian population in the TAR is extremely small. There are some reports that converts to Christianity have encountered societal pressure.

The U.S. Government continued to encourage greater religious freedom in Tibetan areas by urging the central government and local authorities to respect religious freedom and preserve religious traditions. The U.S. Government protested credible reports of religious persecution and discrimination, discussed specific cases with the authorities, and requested further information about specific incidents.

Section I. Religious Demography

The Tibetan areas of China have a total land area of 871,649 square miles. According to the 2000 census, the Tibetan population of those areas is 5,354,540. Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, including many government officials and some Communist Party members who practice it quietly. Increasing numbers of non-religious Han Chinese, some Han Muslims, and some Tibetan Muslims and Christians also live in the region. While officials state that there is no Falun Gong activity in Tibet, reports indicate small numbers of practitioners among the ethnic Han population.

Chinese officials state that Tibet has 46,380 Buddhist monks and nuns and more than 1,700 monasteries, temples, and religious sites. Officials have cited almost identical figures since 1996, although the numbers of monks and nuns dropped at many sites as a result of the “patriotic education” campaign and the expulsion from monasteries and nunneries of many monks and nuns who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama or who were found to be “politically unqualified.” These numbers represent only the Tibet Autonomous Region, where the number of monks and nuns is very strictly controlled; over 100,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns live in other Tibetan areas of China, including parts of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for freedom of religious belief and the freedom not to believe; however, the Government seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of the activity of religious groups. The Government remains suspicious of Tibetan Buddhism in general and its links to the Dalai Lama, and maintains tight controls on religious practices and places of worship in Tibet. Although the authorities permit many traditional religious practices and public manifestations of belief, they promptly and forcibly suppress those activities viewed as vehicles for political dissent, such as religious activities that are perceived as advocating Tibetan independence or any form of separatism. The authorities also regularly require monks and nuns to make statements overtly supporting government or party policies on religion and history, to pledge themselves to support officially approved religious leaders and reincarnations, and to denounce the Dalai Lama.

The Government’s longstanding harsh rhetorical campaign against the Dalai Lama and his leadership of a “government-in-exile” was muted somewhat after Beijing authorities extended invitations to the Dalai Lama envoys to visit Tibet and other areas of China. In September 2002, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama’s representatives to the United States and Europe, respectively, traveled to Beijing, Lhasa, and other cities where they met with a number of government officials. These were the first formal contacts between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Government since 1993. Lodi Gyari made a second trip to China in May 2003 to meet with Chinese officials, and visited Beijing, Shanghai, and Yunnan provinces. Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, was also allowed to visit in July 2002, making his first trip to Tibet since he left in 1959. The Government asserts that it is open to dialogue and negotiation provided that the Dalai Lama publicly affirms that Tibet and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China.

The Government claims that since 1976 it has contributed approximately $40 million (over 300 million RMB) toward the restoration of more than 1,400 Tibetan Buddhist sites that were destroyed before and during the Cultural Revolution. Government funding of restoration efforts was ostensibly done to support the practice of religion, but also was done in part to promote the development of tourism in Tibet. Most recent restoration efforts were funded privately, although a few religious sites also were receiving government support for reconstruction projects at the end of the period covered by this report. In June 2002, the Government began a five-year centrally funded restoration of Lhasa’s Potala and Norbulingka Palaces (both former residences of the Dalai Lama) and the Sakya Monastery in rural southern Tibet (the seat of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism).

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Buddhist monasteries and pro-independence activism are closely associated in Tibet. Since 1959, the Government has moved to curb the proliferation of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, claiming that they are a drain on local resources and a conduit for political infiltration by the Tibetan exile community. The Government states that there are no limits on the number of monks in major monasteries, and that each monastery’s democratic management committee (DMC) decides on its own how many monks the monastery can support. However, since these committees are government-controlled, the authorities are able to impose strict limits on the number of monks in major monasteries. The Government has the right to disapprove any individual’s application to take up religious orders, although these restrictions are not always enforced.

Although monks generally are not permitted to register and formally join a monastery prior to the age of 18, many younger boys in fact continue the tradition of entering monastic life. Young novices, who traditionally served as attendants to older monks while receiving a basic monastic education and awaiting formal ordination, continue to be admitted to some Tibetan monasteries. However, many monasteries have been unable to admit and conduct classes for trainee monks due to their inability to secure government-required approval. While underage monks have been subject to expulsion from monasteries in the past, there were no reports of such expulsions during the period covered by this report.

The Government, which does not contribute to monasteries’ operational funds, continued to oversee the daily operations of major monasteries and retained management control through the DMCs and the local religious affairs bureaus. In many areas, regulations restrict leadership of the DMCs to “patriotic and devoted” monks and nuns and specify that the Government must approve all members of the committees. At some major monasteries, government officials also sit on the committees.

Under the DMC system, funds no longer are made available to partially support monks engaged in full time religious study. Such “scholar monks” now must engage in income-generating activities, at least part of the time, and some experts are concerned that, as a result, fewer monks will be qualified to serve as teachers in the future. The erosion of the quality of religious teaching in the TAR continues to be a focus of concern. The quality and availability of high-level religious teachers in Tibet is inadequate; many teachers now are in exile, older teachers are not being replaced, and those remaining in other areas of China have difficulty securing permission to travel to Tibet.

Government officials state that the “patriotic education” campaign, which began in 1996, has ended. Officials acknowledge, however, that monks and nuns continue to undergo mandatory political education or “patriotic education” on a regular basis at their religious sites. Training sessions are aimed at enforcing compliance with government regulations, and either intimidating or weeding out monks and nuns who refuse to follow Party directives and who remain sympathetic to the Dalai Lama. Monks and nuns are often required to demonstrate their patriotism by signing a declaration by which they agree to: reject independence for Tibet; reject Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama; reject and denounce the Dalai Lama; recognize the unity of China and Tibet; and vow not to listen to the Voice of America or Radio Free Asia. In the past, non-compliant monks and nuns have been expelled from religious sites, while others chose to depart rather than denounce the Dalai Lama. Because of these efforts to control the Buddhist clergy and monasteries, anti-government sentiment remains strong.

Since the early 1990s, an average of 2,500 Tibetans have entered Nepal each year seeking refugee status to escape conditions in Tibet. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 1,268 Tibetan refugees transited through Nepal in 2002. This was roughly equivalent to the 2001 level, but was about half the level seen in the late 1990s. The decline in recent years was due in part to the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. It is difficult for Tibetans to obtain official permission to travel to India for religious purposes, and some face detention or arrest upon their return to China. Nevertheless, many Tibetans, including monks and nuns, visited India via third countries and returned to Tibet after temporary stays. Recently the Chinese Government has tried to promote the return of exiled Tibetans to China, but the approval process is cumbersome.

After the Karmapa Lama (Urgyen Trinley Dorje), the leader of Tibetan Buddhism’s Karma Kargyu school and one of the most influential religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism, secretly left for India in December 1999, the authorities increased efforts to exert control over the process for identifying and educating reincarnated lamas. While the Government approved the Karmapa Lama’s selection of the seventh reincarnation of Reting Rinpoche in January 2000, a controversy remains because the Dalai Lama did not recognize the selection. Another young reincarnate lama, Pawo Rinpoche, who was recognized by the Karmapa Lama in 1994, has been denied access to his religious tutors. Authorities reportedly require that he attend a regular Chinese school. During this reporting period, foreign delegations were not granted permission to visit Pawo Rinpoche’s Nenang Monastery. The Government continued to insist that Gyaltsen Norbu, the boy it selected in 1995, is the Panchen Lama’s 11th reincarnation. The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism’s second most prominent figure, after the Dalai Lama. The Government refused to recognize the Dalai Lama’s choice of another boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, and it tightly controlled all aspects of the “official” Panchen Lama’s life. Gyaltsen Norbu (who ordinarily resides in Beijing) made a highly orchestrated visit to Tibet in June and July 2002, where he met mainly with government officials. His public appearances were marked by a heavy security presence.

Government officials maintain that possessing or displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama is not illegal. Currently, possession of pictures of the Dalai Lama appears to be on the rise, and many Tibetan Buddhists discreetly display them in private. However, possession of such pictures has triggered arrests in the past, and because a ban on these pictures is enforced sporadically, Tibetans are cautious about displaying them. Pictures of the Dalai Lama may not be purchased openly in Tibet. The Government also continued to ban pictures of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama. The Government printed new photos of the “official” Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, in conjunction with his 2002 visit to Tibet, but they were not publicly displayed in most places.

Some 1,000 religious figures hold positions in local people’s congresses and committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, the Government continues to insist that Communist Party members and senior government employees adhere to the Party’s code of atheism, and promotes atheism in regular political training for government cadres. Government officials confirmed that all Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) officers are members of the Communist Party, and that Party members are required to be atheists. However, some lower level RAB officials practice Buddhism.

The severe restrictions on lay religious practices that were imposed in early 2000 have since been relaxed, and many religious ceremonies and festivals have been conducted with increasing openness. Tibetan New Year celebrations in March 2003 were marked by a diminished security presence, large religious ceremonies, and bonfires in the streets. Lhasa’s major monasteries also held large, active prayer festivals for Monlam in March 2003 and for the Saga Dawa Festival in June 2003. However, other reports indicate that government workers were restricted by authorities from participating in religious celebrations. It is also still forbidden for monasteries to convene the traditional joint Monlam celebration, and Tibetans are prohibited from actively celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6.

Travel restrictions to and within the TAR were reported during the period covered by this report, and restrictions on issuance of passports remain in place. The Government tightly controlled visits by foreign officials to religious sites, and official foreign delegations had few opportunities to meet monks and nuns not previously approved by the local authorities.

Abbots and monks in predominantly Tibetan areas outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) report that they have greater freedom to worship and conduct religious training than their coreligionists within the TAR. Diplomats have seen pictures of a number of exiled Tibetan religious figures, including the Dalai Lama, openly displayed in parts of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu Provinces. During the reporting period, tensions continued surrounding the activities of the Serthar Tibetan Buddhist Institute (also known as Larung Gar), located in the Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. Beginning in June 2001, the Government ordered thousands of monks and nuns to leave the Institute, a move observers believe was motivated by its size and the influence of its charismatic founder, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog. Residences of many monks and nuns were destroyed. At its peak, the Institute housed as many as 7,000 monks and nuns, including 1,000 Han Chinese, making it the largest concentration of monks and nuns in the country. The Government stated that it was reducing the population for sanitation and hygiene regions. Critics argued that the authorities were concerned that ethnic Han Chinese students at the Institute might become sympathetic to Tibetan issues. As recently as May 2003, conflicts over attempts to rebuild some residences resulted in arrests and in the enforced closure of the Institute to outsiders. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog returned to Larung Gar in July 2002 and officials continue to monitor activities at the Institute. As of the end of the period covered by this report, the Institute’s population was approximately 4,000 monks and nuns.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibetan areas, particularly the TAR, and it is difficult to determine accurately the scope of religious freedom violations. While the atmosphere for lay religious practice is less restrictive than in the recent past, the level of repression in Tibet remained high, and the Government’s record of respect for religious freedom remained poor during the period covered by this report.

According to the Tibet Information Network (TIN), at least 29 monks and nuns have died while in detention in Tibet since 1987. The last such death was recorded in August 2001, when young monk Kelsang Gyatso died after a brief period of detention in Lhasa for attempting to travel to India. There were no new reports of deaths of religious prisoners during the period covered by this report.

According to statistics from the TIN, as many as 120 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns are currently detained in China, a majority of whom are imprisoned in the TAR. In May 2002, the Deputy Director of the TAR Prison Administration Bureau stated that there are approximately 110 prisoners in Tibet incarcerated for “endangering state security.” The majority of these persons are monks and nuns. As in previous years, there were reports of imprisonment and abuse and torture of monks and nuns accused of political activism, and of prisoners who were beaten because they resisted political reeducation imposed by prison authorities.

Between March and October 2002, the Chinese government granted medical parole to five nuns serving long prison terms in Tibet for protest-related activity. These were the first such early releases of Tibetan political prisoners, and one of the nuns, Ngawang Sangdrol, was subsequently allowed to leave China to seek medical attention in the United States. Four other nuns — Phuntsog Nyidrol, Jangchub Drolma, Chogdrub Drolma, and Namdrol Lhamo,– reportedly remain incarcerated in Lhasa’s Drapchi prison and are serving long prison terms for political offenses. In 1993, Phuntsog Nyidrol and Namdrol Lhamo received extended sentences for recording Tibetan independence songs in prison, and in 1998 Jangchub Drolma and Chogdrub Drolma had their sentences extended after demonstrations at Drapchi prison. Phuntsog Nyidrol, currently the longest-serving female Tibetan political prisoner, reportedly suffers from abdominal pains, frequent vomiting, and depression. Jangchub Drolma and Chongdrub Drolma were both reportedly beaten in May 1998 for refusing to sing Chinese patriotic songs at a May Day flag raising. All four are reportedly in poor health.

The Government continued to refuse to allow access to Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1995 as the 11th Panchen Lama (when he was six years old), and his whereabouts are unknown. Government officials have claimed that the boy is under government supervision for his own protection and that he lives in Tibet and attends classes as a “normal schoolboy.” All requests from the international community for access to the boy to confirm his well-being have been refused. While the overwhelming majority of Tibetan Buddhists recognize the boy identified by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama, Tibetan monks have claimed that they were forced to sign statements pledging allegiance to the boy the Government selected. The Communist Party also urged its members to support the “official” Panchen Lama.

Chadrel Rinpoche, the lama who was accused by the Government of betraying state secrets while helping the Dalai Lama choose the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama, was released from prison in January 2002, according to officials. There are reports that Chadrel Rinpoche is being held under house arrest near Lhasa, but officials have not confirmed his whereabouts. They continue to state that Chadrel Rinpoche is studying scriptures in seclusion.

Following the December 1999 flight of the Karmapa Lama to India, authorities restricted access to the Tsurphu Monastery, the seat of the Karmapa Lama, and intensified “patriotic education” activities there. The Karmapa Lama stated that he left because of controls on his movements and the refusal either to allow him to go to India to be trained by his spiritual mentors or to allow his teachers to come to him. As recently as August 2002, U.S. Government visitors to Tsurphu reported few monks in residence and a tense atmosphere at the monastery. The TIN also reported that no new monks are being permitted to enter the monastery.

Although Tibetan Buddhists in Tibetan areas outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) enjoy relatively greater freedom of worship than their coreligionists within the TAR, religious expression by Tibetan Buddhists outside the TAR has also at times resulted in detention and arrest. In fall 2002, seven lay Tibetans were detained in Kardze County, Sichuan for organizing a long-life ceremony for the Dalai Lama in February 2002. The seven were ultimately tried and given sentences of 3 to 5 year imprisonment. Further, prominent religious leader Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, arrested for his alleged connection with a series of bombings in April 2002, was given a suspended death sentence at his November trial, and his former associate, Lobsang Dhundup, was sentenced to death in the same case. In December 2002, assurances were given to senior U.S. officials that both individuals would be afforded full due process given the severity of the punishment in this case. However, Lobsang Dondrub was executed in January 2003, on the same day as his appeal, despite never having received the promised review by the Supreme People’s Court. Chinese officials maintained that the sentence was applied and carried out for “sabotage of the unity of the country” and “unity of various ethnic groups” and for “crimes of terror.” Several other monks were arrested or detained in connection with their support for Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche.

Since Falun Gong was banned in July 1999, there have been reports of detentions of Falun Gong practitioners in Tibet, and at least one Falun Gong adherent was reportedly detained in Tibet during the period covered by this report. The number of Falun Gong practitioners in Tibet is believed to be small.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government’s refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Most Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism. The Christian population in Tibet is extremely small. There are some reports that converts to Christianity have encountered societal pressure, and some converts have reportedly been disinherited by their families.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu made a concerted effort to encourage greater religious freedom in Tibetan areas. In regular exchanges with the Government, including with religious affairs officials, U.S. diplomatic personnel consistently urged both central government and local authorities to respect religious freedom in Tibetan areas. Embassy and consulate officials protested and sought further information on cases whenever there were credible reports of religious persecution or discrimination. Since January 2002, Chinese authorities have released seven ethnic Tibetan prisoners of conscience who were the subject of U.S. Government concern. U.S. diplomatic personnel stationed in the country also regularly traveled to The TAR and other Tibetan areas to monitor conditions, including the status of religious freedom. Senior U.S. officials traveled to China several times during the period covered by this report to raise human rights concerns, including religious freedom in Tibet. U.S. officials maintain contacts with a wide spectrum of religious figures, and the U.S. Department of State’s nongovernmental contacts include experts on religion in Tibetan areas and religious groups in the United States.

A round of the ongoing U.S.-China bilateral human rights dialogue was held in December 2002, and religious freedom in Tibet was an agenda item.

Download PDF

 

Stay informed:
Get ICT’s latest reports and analysis: sign up for our e-mail list at savetibet.org/email »

, ,