Analysis: Is Tibetan culture doomed in the wake of sinicization?

Taking part in such activities either by force or intention has proved highly advantageous to China in their goal of shifting the narrative on Tibetan Buddhism

Writing in “The Mystery of Abbey Grange”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes telling his friend Watson, “Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”. 

An August 16 story carried in the South China Morning Post on Tibet shows that the “Game is Afoot” as far as India-China relations are concerned. 

Last month, the Indian Airforce released a photograph of the Dalai Lama being flown in a helicopter from Leh to a remote village in Ladakh. 

The Dalai Lama who has spent the last month in Ladakh had little option but to use an Indian military helicopter as there are no private services. 

What is significant though is the publicity given to the visit through official social media handles. Around this time, the Chinese chose to send their Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu to Tashi Lhunpo and other monasteries in Tibet almost as if to say that if India can host the Dalai Lama in Ladakh, we can do with the Panchen Lama visiting Tibet.

The Indian narrative was built up when Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 6 called the Dalai Lama to wish him on his 87th birthday leading to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responding by stating that India should fully understand the “anti-China and separatist nature” of the Dalai Lama and “stop using Tibet-related issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs”. 

One China’s constant concern historically has been the possibility of India playing the Tibet card and this has often led to a tit-for-tat game. 

In 2017, for example, when the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh, China reacted angrily, parts of which China claims as southern Tibet, with China claiming that India had done “serious damage” to bilateral ties. 

The SCMP thus concludes that the Tibet issue had once again caused friction and does not augur well for the complicated relationship. While this is true, the primary reason for this should be attributed to China having changed the status quo violently on the Line of Actual Control in 2020.

India’s position on ties with China was succinctly summarised by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar who recently stated that ties were going through a difficult phase. 

Speaking in Sao Paulo on August 21, the Jaishankar said “China has disregarded the border pacts with India, casting a shadow on the bilateral ties, as he asserted that a lasting relationship cannot be a one-way street and there has to be mutual respect”. 

These remarks come a little after reports revealed China’s plans to build a new highway linking Tibet and Xinjiang, near its disputed border areas with India, and a trans-Himalayan rail link between Tibet and Nepal have not been received well in New Delhi.

Jaishankar said the border stand-off “remained a big problem” and that India would have to prepare for “very unsettling changes” with China on its way to becoming a superpower. 

That partly explains India’s snub when asked to reaffirm its one-China policy after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. India’s foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said: “India’s relevant policies are well known and consistent. They do not require reiteration.” It is in this context that one must view recent intense efforts by the Communist Party of China to Sinicize Tibet. 

For this purpose, the Chinese have introduced their puppet the 11th Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu who has been on the news lately as he has been at the forefront of bolstering and pushing China’s claim of a “Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese Characteristics”. 

Since his appointment and coming of age, Gyaltsen Norbu the Panchen Lama has been the face of Beijing’s doctored version of Tibetan Buddhism. He has been paraded all over China and touted like a puppet whenever the need arises. The Panchen Lama follows his orders from Beijing and is constantly on the road preaching that Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese characteristic is the way forward, Tibetan Buddhism followers should sever society and the motherland (referring to China).

Recently, the 11th Panchen Lama visited the Tashi Lhunpo monastery and visited Sangding monastery and Lhoka city last month. Earlier in July, the Panchen Lama had visited a town close to the border with India, near Longju, the site of the fierce clash in 1962. The purpose of each such visit is to encourage the “Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism” and ensure “Complete Reverence to the Chinese Communist Party”. 

Taking part in such activities either by force or intention has proved highly advantageous to China in their goal of shifting the narrative on Tibetan Buddhism. For example, the Panchen Lama recently stated “It is unequivocal mission for is to unswervingly uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China without hesitation” in a news article titled as “Panchen Lama encourages Tibetan Buddhism followers to serve society, motherland”.

The Panchen’s extortions to Tibetans have been coupled with a slew of measures to keep the Tibetan identity in check. These include a ban in religious activities through social media and technology. China also introduced in 2019, administrative measures for religious groups, which allows to directly intervene and manage the functioning of monasteries. Chinese authorities have insulted and even prevented photos of Tibetan religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama from being portrayed and worshipped by Tibetans. Finally, one may refer to Order no 5, which states the certification of Tibetan reincarnated lamas (known as tulkus) can be finalized by only the Chinese authorities who has the last say here.

Amidst this and other daily developing measures taken by China there continues to be harsh crackdowns, sentences, killings, intimidation, harassment of individuals who do not adhere to these polices implemented. 

Radio Free Asia states that China has ordered leaders of two counties that are presently part of its Sichuan province to prevent the local Tibetans from honouring the exiled head Kirti Rinpoche of their most influential monastery, including by any kind of online posting, on his 80th birthday shows the level of repression and lack of expression that Tibetans currently survive in Chinese occupied Tibet.

Sixty years have passed since the Dalai Lama along with many Tibetans were forced to leave Tibet by China and became refugees in India. However, recent efforts of China to Sinicize Tibet, its religion and identity are a threat. While Tibetan Buddhism remains strong and dynamic in Tibet it faces a critical test of its survival. China recognizes that Buddhism is the corner stone of Tibetan identity and therefore, has been all out efforts to diminish its importance. This destruction of Tibetan Buddhism has accelerated since Xi Jinping came to power and now with his third term of leadership almost secured it seems more than ever likely that this continued assault on Tibetan Buddhism will be in full flow.