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China’s new-found but fake love for religion
Double standards on religion is not new in China. In 2016, while people were forced to attend a Kalachakra initiation in Tibet, devotees were threatened if they participated in a similar ceremony being held in India
Today’s world is confusing. Take China. It is an atheist Marxist regime, with a strong allergy to religion, but it is sponsoring religion. During a recent visit to the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, Chinese Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui told Kuensel, a local newspaper, that China was a Buddhist country. Explaining to the reporter that, though divided by the Himalayas, the Chinese have friendly sentiments towards the Bhutanese people. The Ambassador mentioned the engagement of the two countries whose “history can be traced back a few thousand years.” He added, “We share quite a similar history, culture, religion and even some languages.”
Luo went on to speak about religion: “We know that Bhutan is known for the Kagyu sect and China is also following Mahayana Buddhism.” The Ambassador remarked that last year, “a very high level Chinese Buddhist delegation visited Bhutan and we also invited a Buddhist delegation from Bhutan to visit China”.
Are you not confused? China, a Buddhist country having similar history, culture, religion and even some languages with Bhutan? Modern China is full of such dichotomies. At the same time, in Afghanistan, China is busy destroying the ancient Buddhist city of Mes Aynak, for mining copper.
A film, Saving Mes Aynak, recently showed the Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper digging an open-pit copper mine located 40km from Kabul. According to the documentary, the two Chinese state-owned mining companies are planning to destroy the ancient site to extract copper.
Under Hamid Karzai’s administration, the MCC agreed to lease the Mes Aynak area from Afghanistan for 30 years for three billion dollars. Once the project is fully functional, MCC expects to extract more than $100 billion worth of copper. While archaeologists have started campaigning to save the site, Zabih Sarwari of the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, asserted that the project was slated to start soon.
The South China Morning Post reported that about 2,300 items have already been removed from the site to the National Museum of Afghanistan. But many are not satisfied. The residents of a dozen villages have been permanently shifted to clear the way for the mining, adds the documentary.
Zhengou Liu, MCC’s deputy president, claimed that the villagers were informed in advance: “MCC has outsourced some jobs to Afghan companies and is providing jobs to Afghans.”
All this does not seem very Buddhist. Afghans still remember the fate of the famous giant Buddhas at Bamiyan, which were destroyed in 2001 by another atheist regime; for the Taliban, it was simply because the statues were blasphemous. The destruction attracted world condemnation and the site was ‘posthumously’ awarded UN world heritage status.
Double standards in the field of religion is not new in China. In 2016, while people were forced to attend a Kalachakra initiation in Tibet, devotees were threatened with dire consequences if they participated in the same ceremony in India. In July 2016, Beijing supported a Kalachakrapuja performed by Gyalsten Norbu, the boy selected by the Party (in doubtful circumstances) as the Eleventh Panchen Lama.
While Norbu officiated in Shigatse, the boy recognised by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama, languished under house arrest ‘somewhere’ in China.
One more dichotomy: The atheist Party, suddenly greatly knowledgeable in religious affairs, explained: “The Kalachakra ritual is the highest level of rituals in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and only high monks and lamas with profound attainments in Buddhist philosophy can hold the ritual.” The fact that Gyaltsen Norbu is highly inexperienced didn’t bother Beijing.
The Chinese media reported that more than 100,000 Buddhist followers, some 100 ‘high’ lamas and 5,000 monks and nuns attended the function. The truth is that many ‘devotees’ were coerced to be present. Beijing has not become enamoured of religious practices. Six months later, the communist authorities were quick to denounce the Bodh Gaya Kalachakra event as ‘illegal’.
Though some 1,75,000 devotees from nearly 90 countries around the world assembled in Bodh Gaya to get the blessings of the Dalai Lama, Tibetans (from Tibet) and their families were threatened in case they chose to attend it. The communist leadership just can’t stomach the Dalai Lama’s popularity.
Radio Free Asiareported: “Thousands of pilgrims from Tibetan-populated areas of western China, who had hoped to attend, have been forced to return home, while others have been blocked from leaving China.”
The dichotomy extends to Islam. Last year, a White Paper asserted that freedom of religious belief in Xinjiang “cannot be matched by that in any other historical period, and is undeniable to anyone who respects the facts.” Though sounding good, it is only official rhetoric: A ban on fasting was declared on several categories of people. “Party members, cadres, civil servants, students and minors must not fast for Ramzan and must not take part in religious activities”, said a notice posted on the Government website. It added, “During the month of Ramzan, food and drink businesses must not close.”
Another example is The Larung Gar Buddhist Academy located in Serthar county of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Sichuan Province. According to Radio Free Asia, Beijing has decided to bring down large sections of the monastery: “Massive cuts are being planned for the number of monks and nuns allowed to live at a large Buddhist study centre.”
The institute probably enjoys too great a popularity among the Chinese: Between 20,000 and 30,000 monks and nuns, (a large proportion from the mainland) had joined the institute over the years. Now the institute’s population will be capped at 5,000.
But there is worse. The University of California San Diego (UCSD) has recently announced that the Dalai Lama will visit the university in June and speak at an event on campus. The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Party asserted: “The announcement has triggered strong opposition from students from the Chinese mainland at the university.”
There was a veiled threat: “The university needs to bear any negative consequences which may be brought by the Dalai Lama’s (visit). It is hoped that the US and its institutions will not pointedly work at odds with China’s concerns but should learn about Chinese history to better bilateral relations.”
Once again, such type of threats does not sound very Buddhist; but it is perhaps Buddhism with Chinese characteristics.
(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author)
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