The Chinese government is taking over the administration of the Tibetan Buddhist monastic centre of Larung Gar, according to an official document obtained by New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch. The new administrative controls infringe upon freedom of religion, the NGO said.

Larung Gar was the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institute until the Chinese government ordered a series of expulsions and demolitions lasting eight months.

The notice obtained by HRW. Photo: HRW.

In June 2016, the government ordered the monastery to reduce the number of monks and nuns to 5,000 by September 2017, saying the site had become overcrowded. According to a report compiled by London-based NGO Free Tibet, 4,828 people had been evicted and 4,725 buildings torn down by May last year.

A leaflet received by HRW via social media in August contained details of the new controls. It said that some 200 Communist Party cadres and lay officials are taking over all management, finances, security, and even textbooks and student admissions.

HRW said the government’s takeover could have a much larger impact than the demolitions and expulsions.

Destruction at Larung Gar. Photo:

“The new government controls over Larung Gar fly in the face of Party claims that China respects constitutionally protected religious beliefs,” said Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director. “The micromanagement of the Tibetan monastery encroaches on religious freedom and is likely to fuel resentment against Beijing.”

The leaflet was apparently issued by Liu Chengming, Party Secretary of the Ganzi Prefecture – known as Kandze Prefecture in Tibetan – or other officials overseeing Larung Gar, and appeared to be intended for public distribution.

According to HRW, the government’s plan to replace three-fifths of Larung Gar’s main management committee with lay officials had already been implemented, but the new document shows that cadres will also be installed at every level and in each section of the monastery. They will hold almost half of the positions on most committees and most of the top committee positions. The institute was formerly run by monks and nuns selected by senior members of the monastery.

The brochure also called for increased security and surveillance of monks and nuns, and states that monks will be required to have red tags or labels, while nuns will have yellow labels and lay devotees will have green ones under a “real name registration” system.

The brochure also said that 40 per cent of teaching at the institute must now consist of classes in politics and other non-religious subjects, and that the primary criterion for accepting students will be whether they “have a firm political stand, accepting the Great Motherland, the Chinese people, Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party and socialism with Chinese characteristics.

“The ‘Teaching Principles in Tibetan-language Higher Buddhist Studies Institutes’ produced by the China Tibetan-language Higher Buddhist Studies Institute and the textbook on which it is based are to be followed. Teaching principles must be the same, and textbooks and reference materials gradually made the same,” a translation of the document prepared by HRW said.

“The administrative takeover of Larung Gar by Party officials shows that the government’s aim was not merely to reduce numbers at the settlement,” Richardson said. “Chinese authorities are also imposing pervasive control and surveillance over every level of activity within religious communities.”

The NGO said although permanent teams of cadres have been stationed in all monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the scale of the Communist Party’s intervention at Larung Gar is unprecedented, and officials appear to be attempting to micromanage religious institutions in order to “adapt Tibetan Buddhism to socialist society.”

Larung Gar. Photo: Wikicommons.

A group of United Nations experts wrote to China in 2016 expressing concern over the demolitions and expulsions, and asking China to provide details of the legal grounds for the measures.

Chinese officials have said that the complex is being rebuilt to improve safety and public health, citing overcrowding and a risk of fire.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.