Chinese Communist Party turns ‘attention’ to Tibetan Mongolian Buddhism
Attempts to coopt older lamas and exploit internal divisions to counteract the influence of the Tibetan government in exile. The United Front could try to apply similar tactics to religions other than Buddhism.
Rome (AsiaNews) - Tibetan Buddhism, a branch of which is the main religion of Mongolia, has become the subject of particular attention by the United Front (UF), within the framework of the "sinify" religions proclaimed by the Chinese Communist Party of Xi Jinping. In his 2016 program on religion issues he clearly stated that there should be no religious activities outside the control of the Party.
A recent study by the Jamestown Foundation shows how this attitude will be emphasized with the choice of the next Dalai Lama.
In Mongolia, the United Front's attention has turned to the process in finding a successor to Jebtsundamba Khutugtu - spiritual head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia - a sensitive issue, as it is perceived as a challenge neo-imperial reincarnation management system, which will undergo a major test when it comes to the selection of the next Dalai Lama reincarnation.
Meanwhile, state-led interactions with Mongolian monasteries, some unreported even in Mongolia, reveal attempts to cultivate senior lamas and exploit internal divisions to counter Dharamsala’s influence and earn global Buddhist ‘discourse power’. Although the potential of religion as an influence tool in Mongolia is limited, the tactics used illustrate the Xiist expansion of UF work beyond its traditional domestic-diasporic domain.
CCP religious policy involves both repression and co-option. Co-opting religion and other non-Party forces, both inside and outside China, is the job of the United Front Work Department (UFWD). Although UF tactics are a Leninist creation, prescribed to the CCP in the 1920s by Soviet advisors, the system the UFWD uses to manage religion is a post-Comintern innovation whose closest parallel is in North Korea. To survive as “patriotic” tools of the Party, imported religions such as Christianity and Buddhism must undergo “Sinification” (中国化), a demand stressed under. The maxim “love the country, love religion” (爱国爱教) summarizes what the Party expects of religious believers.
In this perspective, the China Buddhist Association (CBA) has been officially placed under the Party. A significant figure in all of this is Yinshun (印顺), vice president of the CBA and president of his Hainan chapter. Yinshun is the abbot of three temples: two in the south of China and one in Lumbinī, the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal. He also directs the Nanhai Academy of Buddhism, which opened in 2017 to offer training on Chinese, Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism. According to Yinshun, the goal of this endeavor is to offer the world a “Sinified Buddhist system” (Xinhua, September 2017). Although primarily religious in nature, this system is not insulated from political concerns. A roundtable Yinshun organized reached what he described as a “consensus” that “the South China Sea is Chinese” and “China has already become the center of the world’s Buddhism,” hopefully opening “a leading role in the world’s religious development”.
The system also seems to exploit the divisions between the Mongolian clergy. Some of the most important Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia have had contact with state structures. Among these is the Ikh Khüree monastery in Ulan Bator, whose abbot Sanjdorj is known for a bitter rivalry with the main monastery of the capital. Sanjdorj has criticized the Dalai Lama’s visits to Mongolia. In 2016, he regretted the Dalai Lama had been invited “without the approval“ of Mongolia’s “neighbors” (time.mn, November 2016). His views on the visit were quoted approvingly by PRC state media
Even if the successes of the policy of the United Front in Mongolia should not be overestimated, the Mongolian example shows a UF system bent on exploiting the religious capital acquired through the appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism. While the limitations of its Mongolian instantiation are defined by local conditions, the expansion of the domain of UF work to include religious groups abroad is of global significance. Speculatively, Xi’s potentially lifelong rule could give UF cadres enough time to venture beyond the neo-Qing model and apply similar tactics to religions other than Buddhism.