By Palden Sonam*
In July 2018, China issued an order banning underage Tibetan students from engaging in religious activities during their summer holidays. Although Beijing’s consistent effort to assimilate minority regions through demographic change and language imposition has been ongoing for decades, this particular ban points to a larger and more sophisticated attempt to strip the so called national minorities like Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians off their cultural identity. More importantly, the current implementation strategy reflects a more insidious effort to reduce the cultural influence of religion, and includes a specific focus on children. It is therefore important to understand the issue through the wider logic and politics of Beijing’s cultural colonialism in these politically sensitive and strategically valuable regions even as China pushes its One Belt One Road initiative forward.
For instance, on 7 September 2017, the government-appointed leaders of China’s five main religious groups announced that they would Sinicise their religions and that “the direction of religions is to integrate them with Chinese culture.” However, they were merely reiterating what was already decided at an April 2016 high level conference on religious affairs chaired by China’s President Xi Jinping himself. During that conference, Xi had called on the authorities to guide the religions to love the country, defend national unity and uphold the leadership of the party. The formulation and implementation of this policy of Sinicisation of religion thus has a sanction from the highest levels of China’s political leadership.
A Case Study of Xinjiang
In 2018, the strict implementation of this policy became more visible, with thousands of Uighur Muslims detained in re-education camps, reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s Laogai or ‘reform through labour’. Though it is difficult to confirm the exact numbers, thousands of local Uighurs have disappeared in political re-education camps across the region. The primary targets of re-education camps have been those who demonstrated religion-linked identity markers–such as men with long beards; women wearing hijabs; regular visitors to mosques; those who send their children to madrasas–as well as those who had studied in West Asia and those with family or friends abroad. The modus operandi points to a systematic attempt to undermine the ethnic, traditional ways of life from food habits to funeral practices. Religious festivals like Ramzan have for long been banned; people are forced to consume pork and alcohol even though their religion forbids it. There is also an active region-wide ‘funeral reform’ push to replace traditional funeral practices and to discourage the use of Islamic names (particularly those bearing theological/religious connotations). The policy and its draconian implementation reinforce the already pervasive levels of securitisation in the region in the guise of eliminating the three evils of extremism, terrorism and separatism.
A Case Study of Tibet
While the policy’s objectives in Tibet are the same as in Xinjiang, the manner in which it has been implemented in Tibet has been relatively less violent and harsh than in Xinjiang. For instance, in May 2018, authorities in Sichuan province announced that Tibetan Buddhist monks educated in India were not allowed to teach in the area. In the same month, an official order was issued to Tibetan students instructing them not to engage in religious activities during the Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa. In July 2018, young monks below the age of 15 were expelled from monasteries in eastern Tibet. Most recently, local authorities from the Political Education Department issued an order instructing Tibetan students to refrain from religious activities during their summer holidays. The official reason stated was that this order was issued to de-link education from religious influence and to inculcate scientific outlook and critical thinking among the students. However, religion is not the sole subject of Sinicisation. Like in Xinjiang, there are increasing efforts by the Chinese authorities to scrutinise, penetrate and securitise traditional Tibetan ways of life. In 2018, the Public Security Bureau declared a crackdown on Tibetan organisations working for the preservation of Tibetan language and environment protection; traditional Tibetan social organisations like welfare associations; dispute mediation activities by Buddhist lamas and community elders, etc–by branding them as ‘illegal organisations’.
In Xinjiang, the state’s monitoring and surveillance is more pervasive and is conducted in a more systematic manner. For instance, Chinese officials have begun bringing their bedding and rations to live with Uighur families periodically to collect information about the families (ranging from their political views to sources of income) and also ‘educate’ the families in political ideologies and Mandarin language. This policy of government officials living with local families to monitor and re-educate is not new and was previously already witnessed in Tibet. However, the current Sinicisation drive manifests more harshly in Xinjiang as is evident in the mushrooming of re-education camps and large numbers of people detained in those camps. This difference is probably due to the fact that the policy is being implemented in Xinjiang at time when the region is also undergoing stringent securitisation under the present Party Secretary in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who had led the implementation of similar strict security measures in the Tibet during his tenure as the party secretary in Tibet. In Xinjiang, the two policies of Sinicisation and securitisation are simultaneously implemented in the name of countering religious extremism and terrorism. China finds it easy to capitalise on the widespread Islamophobia in the world as they proceed with their campaign against the Uighur Muslims whose cause also does not enjoy as much public sympathy as the Tibet cause does.
Overall, Beijing’s policy of Sinicisation of religion has two key objectives: to assimilate and securitise minority regions; and to increase the Communist Party of China’s penetration into the social structures in these regions. These objectives are not new but there are three main characteristics in these policies’ implementation under Xi Jinping: the strategy is not uniform and is customised for each region; the justification given for these policies refer to legal requirements rather than revolutionary rhetoric; and there is an increased focus on keeping underage persons away from religious activities.
Researcher, China Research Programme (CRP)