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Tibet party secretary Wu Yingjie says China must pursue further “Sinicisation of religion”. Photo: Reuters

China’s Tibet Communist Party chief targets religion and separatism

  • Tibetan Buddhism has always been a part of Chinese culture, Wu Yingjie says as party marks 70 years of control of the region
  • Analysts say authorities are seeking to redefine history to tighten control
The Communist Party’s top official in Tibet has called for greater stress on Chinese elements in religion and a further crackdown on “separatism” as the party marks 70 years of control of the region.
Tibet party secretary Wu Yingjie said on Saturday that the country must pursue further “Sinicisation of religion” and a stronger role for the party’s leadership in Tibet, a move analysts said was meant to reframe the region’s history and tighten Beijing’s grip on the area.

“We must ... promote [the concept] that Tibetan Buddhism has always been a part of the Chinese culture,” Wu said.

The comments came a day after the party issued a report defining its official position on Tibet, claiming the area “has been an inseparable part of China since ancient times”, dating back to the seventh century.

“The Tubo Kingdom established in Tibet in the seventh century contributed significantly to the exploration of China’s southwestern borders,” it said.

The report, known as a white paper, also accused Western forces of supporting the Tibetan independence movement, and vowed to continue to crack down on “separatist activities” in the region.

“In the aftermath of the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century, the British-led imperialist powers began to cultivate the idea of ‘Tibet independence’, intentionally undermining China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the report said.

“Historical facts clearly demonstrate that ‘Tibetan independence’ was no more than a product of imperialist aggression against China. Driving imperialist forces out of Tibet was the precondition for the Chinese people to safeguard national unity.”

Wu echoed the message on Saturday, saying that to “nip separatism in the bud, we strictly must crack down on all kinds of separatist and infiltration activities”.

China’s religion chiefs to double down on bringing doctrine in line with socialist dogma

Xie Maosong, a researcher in development strategy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the authorities had not paid enough attention to Sinicising religion until a few years ago.

“To strengthen governance in Tibet in the new era, we need to strengthen efforts to Sinicise religion and reshape the historical narrative of Tibet. These are the changes made in the last few years. We did not stress these enough in the past,” Xie said.

“It is important to blend the historical narrative about Tibet and other ethnic minorities into the wider historical narrative of a new China, instead of treating it as separate history.

“It is impossible for Tibet to go back to the past. It needs to be a socialist Tibet.”

Robert Barnett, former director of Columbia University’s modern Tibetan studies programme, said Beijing had changed its narrative over Tibet’s history over the years.

“Among many provocative claims, one outstanding one is that Tibet has been part of China ‘since ancient times’, which seems to refer to the seventh century or earlier,” Barnett said.

“This is hard to take seriously, since until 2015 the [party] and the Chinese government had insisted that Tibet only became part of China in the 13th century, and before that they had said it happened in the 17th or 18th centuries. China has yet to explain why it keeps changing its claims as to when it thinks Tibet became part of China.”

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Both analysts agreed that Beijing was unlikely to try to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, the 85-year-old spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

Beijing deems the Dalai Lama a “separatist” and says it has the right to select his successor. It also sees international concerns for Tibet as interference with China’s domestic affairs.

He has been living in India in exile since a failed uprising in 1959 against Chinese rule, and warned that any successor named by Beijing instead of the Tibetans would not be respected.

Barnett said Beijing was likely to “try to delay talks until they think the Dalai Lama’s position is very weak, and that it will aim to give no concessions, if possible”.

Xie said China’s door to the Dalai Lama “remains open. But the Dalai Lama has kept making impossible prerequisites for talks.”

The US Congress passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act in December, calling for the right of Tibetans to select a successor to the Dalai Lama and also for the establishment of a US consulate in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

Additional reporting by Guo Rui and Jun Mai

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Top Communist Party official targets religion and separatism in region