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Persecution of Buddhists in Tibet (234 KB , PDF)
Tibet is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. For information on Tibet’s historical relationship with China see the 2009 Commons Library briefing: Tibet.
According to a 2022 US State Department report on religious freedom in Tibet, a 2020 estimate of the National Bureau of Statistics of China puts the total population of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) at approximately 3.65 million, “of which Tibetans make up approximately 90 percent”. Han Chinese “make up approximately 8 percent” and “other ethnicities comprise the remainder”.
However, the State Department report also states that “some experts[…] believe the number of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans living there is significantly underreported”.
The report details that “Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although a sizeable minority practices Bon, a pre-Buddhist indigenous religion”. It notes that “Some scholars estimate there are as many as 400,000 Bon followers across the Tibetan Plateau, most of whom also follow the Dalai Lama and consider themselves to be Tibetan Buddhists”.
Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office report
In July 2023, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office published its annual human rights and democracy report looking at the situation in 2022. The report has a section on each of the FCDO’s ‘Human Rights Priority Countries’ (HRPCs), which are “countries which either have particular human rights or democracy challenges – or are on a negative or positive trajectory”.
China is one of the 32 HRPCs. In the report’s section on China, it states that “Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and others remained at risk of persecution”, and that “the UK consistently raised this with the authorities at the highest levels”. For example, in March 2022, “the then Foreign Secretary addressed the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet in a speech at the UN Human Rights Council”.
The report states that there are “severe constraints on media freedom, freedom of religion or belief, and the rule of law, [and] continued repression of culture and language in Tibet”, and that “There remained tight restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, including through policies designed to ‘sinicise’ religions” (meaning in this context to make a faith or belief group, more culturally Chinese and reflect Chinese socialist values).
The report states that the FCDO has been “supporting the rights of Tibetans”.
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, US federal government agency that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad; designates China as one of its ‘countries of particular concern’ (there are 17 designated in this category).
A report looking at the freedom of religion and belief in China in 2022, states that the Chinese government “continued to vigorously implement its ‘sinicization of religion’ policy and demand that religious groups support the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule and ideology”.
The report states that:
Although China officially recognizes Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism, groups with perceived foreign connections—such as Uyghurs and other Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, underground Catholics, and house church Protestants—are especially vulnerable to persecution.
It states that Chinese “Government control and suppression of Tibetan Buddhism intensified” in 2022, and details several reports of repression against Tibetan Buddhists specifically:
Authorities restricted Tibetans’ access to religious sites, banned religious gatherings, destroyed sites and symbols of religious significance, and subjected Tibetan monks and nuns to political indoctrination, including at “reeducation centers.” Authorities reportedly tortured Tibetan monks in prison, including Rinchen Tsultrim and Sherab Gyatso, who suffer from poor health, and they detained Tibetans for religious activities honoring the Dalai Lama or possessing his portraits. The Chinese government repeatedly stated its intent to interfere in the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, claiming it has the ultimate authority to appoint his successor. In 2022, at least three Tibetans self-immolated, protesting the government’s policies in Tibet. Moreover, authorities reportedly conducted mass DNA collection in Tibet, likely to strengthen surveillance and control there.
US State Department human rights reports
The US State Department publishes annual reports on human rights practices in countries across the world. A March 2023 report looking at human rights issues in 2022 in China, states that “the monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas”, and “the government installed surveillance cameras in monasteries in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and in other Tibetan areas”.
A subsection of the report focusing on Tibet, references a Human Rights Protection Network report that claimed “Tibetans living in China were sentenced for ‘illegal business operation’ for sending donations to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India and Nepal”.
It also references a tibet.net report that “new restrictions governing online religious content were being used to silence and punish those sharing religious materials on social media”. It said these measures prohibit “unlicensed organizations from organizing religious activities on the internet and broadcasting or recording religious ceremonies”, which include activities “such as worshipping Buddha, burning incense, ordaining, chanting…in the form of words, pictures, audio, and video”.
The US State Department report also states that:
According to multiple sources, monasteries throughout Tibetan areas of China were required to integrate CCP members into their governance structures, where they exercised control over monastic admission, education, security, and finances. Requirements introduced by the party included geographic residency limitations on who may attend each monastery. This restriction, especially rigorous in the TAR, undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced religious instruction from a select number of senior teachers based at monasteries across the Tibetan plateau.
Official Chinese statements
In November 2023, a Chinese government official, Xu Zhitao, vice chairman of the Tibet regional government, denied allegations that it was forcing assimilation and curbing religious freedom in the region.
Responding specifically to criticisms that shutting village schools, and sending children in Tibet to boarding schools is part of a broader strategy to dilute Tibetan identity and assimilate Tibetans into the majority Chinese culture, Xu said China has opened the schools to improve education for children from remote areas. He stated: “the claim that Tibetan children are forced to go to boarding schools is deliberate smearing with an ulterior motive”.
Xu said the schools are needed to serve sparsely populated and remote rural areas. He stated: “If the schools are too spread out, it would be difficult to have enough teachers or to provide quality teaching”, arguing “it’s highly necessary to have a combination of boarding schools and day schools to ensure high quality teaching and the equal rights of children”.
According to AP News he argued “the government manages religious affairs that are related to the interests of the state and the public but does not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups”. Xu stated: “We must continue adapting religion to the Chinese context and guiding Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to socialist society, which can help Tibetan Buddhism better adapt to the realities of China”.
In March 2021, responding at the UN’s Human Rights Council to criticisms of China’s human rights record, China’s Ambassador Chen Xu responded “Putting people at the center, China has made remarkable achievements in the field of human rights. Today, Xinjiang and Tibet enjoy prosperity and stability”.
Documents to download
Persecution of Buddhists in Tibet (234 KB , PDF)
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