China’s battle for superiority has veered from the political to the economic, military and now even to the spiritual.
Buddhism, is what China is seeing as a trump card to up the ante of their one-upmanship. It is no secret they have been striving hard to claim the mantle of Buddhist hegemony to extend its global soft power mileage.
China is the largest Buddhist nation by population with at least 300 – 400 million Buddhists and has identified Buddhism as crucial in its geopolitical strategy and dealings.
Despite being a self-declared atheist state, China is also trying to build a global Buddhist image using its financial and political clout to upstage India in the race for Buddhist soft power.
This runs in contrast with its erstwhile belief and policy. Since the Communist party took over China from the Kuomintang in 1949, the country became an officially atheist state, and all religion, including Buddhism was severely repressed. Mao even famously referred to religion as poison.
At the peak of its onslaught on religion during the Cultural Revolution, China effectively dismantled the foundation of Buddhism in China, including destroying 98% of monasteries and nunneries in Tibet and forcibly disrobing 99% of the Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. As a result, His Holiness the Dalai Lama Tibet’s foremost spiritual leader along with the heads of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism fled persecution and escaped into exile India.
However, under President Xi Jinping, China’s current strongman, the country has embarked on a campaign to reassert control of religion particularly Buddhism in China.
Although, it is not clear whether Xi Jinping himself is a Buddhist practitioner or not, but one cannot deny that he has exerted efforts to transform China not only into an economic giant but also into a spiritual powerhouse.
A point in case is China’s relentless efforts to fund Buddhist organisations. China not only hosts the World Buddhist Forum, but plans to develop Lingshan County in China’s Southeast as a global Buddhist hotspot.
China also controls the World Buddhist Sangha Council founded in Sri Lanka in 1966. In 2014, it hosted the World Fellowship of Buddhists meet. Across Theravada and Mahayana countries, the Chinese are helping repair, renovate and resurrect Buddhist institutions.
Recently, an article reportedly by a Chinese professor making the bizarre claim that Buddha was of Chinese-origin went viral on Chinese social media. Although the claim was ridiculed in China itself, the extent to which China can go to claim the Buddhist image can be gauged from these incidents.
Monasteries and nunneries in Tibet are placed under severe surveillance and are subject to constant interference from Chinese authorities. The monks and nuns are forced to undergo patriotic educations and act as informants on each other.
Even today, China sees Tibetan Buddhism and His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the main threat to the leadership of the Communist Party in Tibet. To counter these, China has notoriously declared a regulation in 2007 according to which all incarnate lamas or tulkus must have state approval. This regulation which goes against the centuries old tradition of selecting reincarnate Tibetan lamas is an attempt to rule the land and people of Tibet through state-sponsored lamas. It has also undertaken a project to demolish some of the largest Tibetan Buddhist institutes in Tibet such as Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar.
While it is noteworthy that China is embracing Buddhism and touting Buddhist heritage, it is ironic that the same country employs a severe high handedness in Tibet, a predominantly Buddhist nation which is under Chinese occupation since 1951. It routinely denounces His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the world’s most popular Buddhist teacher, and tries hard through policies and practies to delink Dalai Lama from Tibetan Buddhism, thus hurting the sentiments of Tibetans and millions of his followers.
Therefore, it would be prudent on part of China to acknowledge that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Buddhism are inseparable, allow Tibetans in Tibet to freely practice religion, strengthen its outreach to the Tibetan Buddhists around the world and restore the faith of the Tibetan people in their leadership, before aspiring to hold the mantle of Buddhist powerhouse. In failing to do so China’s ambitions to harness global Buddhist soft power is doomed to fail.