Indications over the past few months hint at a degree of nervousness in some quarters within the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) leadership about the unchecked spread of Buddhism in China. There is additionally apparent concern about the spread of the Dalai Lama’s influence elsewhere in China—outside the borders of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)—prompting efforts to more strictly regulate the activities of Tibetan Buddhist monks. 

There has been a marked increase in the number of Buddhists in China over the past 20 years, with their percentage in the population rising from 5% to more than 18% by 2015. The increase followed the easing of controls on religion by the communist authorities in 2006-07. Buddhists in China are now estimated to exceed 300 million. The 88 million-strong CCP has been sensitive to the growth of any other organisation not controlled by the Party, viewing it as a potential threat to its monopoly on power. The Falungong, which grew to 100 million members, was ruthlessly eviscerated after a sustained 10-year long nationwide campaign with little trace of it left today.

China’s apprehension that prominent Han Chinese personalities could be influenced by the Dalai Lama became evident when, in February 2016, China’s official media criticised mainland actor Hu Jun, Hong Kong singer Faye Wong and Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, for having sat close to “two core figures of the Dalai Lama group” during a Tibetan Buddhist event in India. The pro-China Chinese-language Hong Kong daily Ming Pao, quoting, which focuses on Tibet related news, observed that many Western film stars had been criticised for their support for the Dalai Lama and Chinese celebrities should have learned the lesson. Despite these restrictions, since 2014, around 140-160 Mainland Chinese visit Dharamsala each year and many seek an audience with the Dalai Lama. 

Possibly concerned at the spread of the Dalai Lama’s influence, the provincial unit of the official Buddhist Association of China (BAC) issued a six-point directive in November 2016, calling for the prevention and restriction of the “illegal” propagation of Tibetan Buddhism in China’s Zhejiang province. Zhejiang is a major centre of Chinese Buddhist education and training and its Buddhist population outnumbers those of most other Chinese provinces. Addressed to all BAC units in the province, the notice was reportedly issued “on the request of the Zhejiang Province Religious Affairs Bureau to thoroughly implement the basic religious policy of the Communist Party of China and other laws and regulations on religious affairs, and to improve religious harmony and social harmony”. While not clarifying these “illegal” activities, it prohibits monks practising Tibetan Buddhism from visiting Zhejiang province to give teachings, conduct empowerment rituals, and conduct other ceremonies without government approval. It states that approval is required for teaching of Tibetan Buddhist texts and scriptures or holding other related activities at Buddhist centres, Buddhist associations or Buddhist universities in the province. 

Other Buddhist religious personalities wanting to visit Zhejiang for religious ceremonies or for working as religious instructors are also required to obtain permission from the concerned BAC units. They too require to register with the Zhejiang Civil Affairs Department. The detailed notice additionally specifies that religious personages require permission to organise or participate in religious activities in places where religious activities are not allowed. It reiterates that religious gatherings organised by the general public must be held at lawfully registered religious venues or at venues approved by the relevant religious affairs bureau from county level upwards. A specific article in the notice orders all Buddhist associations in the province to advice and guide monks of Chinese Buddhism to practice their faith in the Chinese Buddhist tradition.

Interestingly, a copy of the notice was separately addressed to the Buddhist Association of Mt Putuo in Zhejiang, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites and closely identified with Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhists believe that Mt Putuo is home to Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion. The XIVth Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is considered to be the emanation of the Buddha Avalokitesvara. Mt Putuo has additional significance because the IXth Panchen Lama visited Mt Putuo in 1925, to bring Tibetan Buddhism to Chinese audiences and taught thousands of Chinese Buddhist monks and conducted empowerment rituals.

The Kalachakra teachings (3-14 January 2017) in Bodhgaya have predictably attracted Chinese attention. To prevent Chinese and Tibetans from attending, the authorities ceased issuing visas since last December and restricted travel to Nepal. Surveillance in TAR was heightened to identify those who might have clandestinely slipped across and the internet, telephones etc are being monitored to prevent transmission of Kalachakra teachings. Notwithstanding these controls, like in 2014, nearly a thousand Tibetans from China and almost another thousand Chinese from different provinces attended the Kalachakra this year with many seeking an audience with the Dalai Lama.

Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.