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by Finn Cheshire, New Zealand May 7, 2002
Peace & Conflict , Human Rights  
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When in 1950 the newly establish Peoples Republic of China invaded Tibet under the pretence of ‘reuniting China’ and ‘liberating Tibet from imperialistic control’, Tibet, its peoples, and its religion were thrown into turmoil . The People's Republic of China, or PRC, like most communist states, views religion as a suppresser of the proletariat and a threat to the authority of the state. Following these beliefs the PRC has moved and continues to move to suppress and control all religions within their territory. This control of religion was quickly applied to Tibet, a nation that has its heart in Buddhism, by using methods ranging from re-education programs to mass murder of monks and nuns. Such methods are still being applied today as the policy of the PRC towards Tibetan Buddhism ranges from control to extermination.

General Communist ideology toward religion can be summed up in Karl Marx’s infamous phrase, “Religion is the opiate of the mass”. In the eyes of many communists, religion challenges the Revolution in two direct ways. First, religion is a tool of the bourgeois used to suppress the masses and take their eyes away from their condition. Second, under Leninist or Maoist governments religion is seen a challenging the authority of the state. Buddhism is perhaps the greatest challenger in the eyes of communists in China, in its dogged determination to retain the independence of its nunneries and monasteries.

Despite this ideological distrust of religion, it is not impossible to for religion to exist alongside a communist state. Communist Poland found a way to co-exist with the Catholic Church, a fact the PRC has chosen not to appreciate or attempted to replicate.

Instead of attempting to co-exist with religion, the People's Republic of China has chosen a policy of control. The strength of the Party’s control on religion in China. and especially Tibet has fluctuated over the half century since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The range of control has been from a tight grasp following civil disorder or general uprising to almost strangling religion into extinction at times such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Buddhism has a long history in China, and an even longer in Tibet. It was first introduced in the sixth century Common Era and was quickly adopted by the Hen Emperors. Since that time Buddhism has experienced many different relations with the state in China, sometimes adopted as the state religion, sometimes feared and opposed for the independence of its monasteries, and sometime attacked outright. Despite these mixed fates Buddhism has a strong base in China, partly due to its reinforcement of the Taoist and Confucian values, values which form the base of much of Chinese culture and society.
In Tibet itself Buddhism plays and even more vital role. Buddhism exists in every aspect of life, forming the base of all Tibetan culture. This is especially obvious in the combination of religion and politics, seen primarily through the position of his holiness the Dalhi Lama as both religious and political leader of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.

Within the PRC itself, the government claims that religious freedom exists, and that over 100 million people freely practice their chosen religion. However, this can be viewed in very different light when one considers the PRC’s definition of ‘religious freedom’ and that the government of the PRC has been using the 100 million statistic since the 1950’s.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right states that “Everyone has the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, and that this freedom includes the right to practice and teach religion “either alone or in community” .

Throughout its history, and more importantly in response to international criticism over its actions concerning human rights, the PRC has clamed that it has abided by the declaration. However problems have arisen over the PRC’s definition of religious freedom. The PRC holds religious freedom as being able to believe what you wish, but deny that religious freedom includes the right to practice religion as a community. The Chinese government’s fear is that any sense of identity that comes with religion might supersede the patriotic national identity. The PRC has stated that religion may exist, however it “should not be used for politics of any sense but for a spiritual richness of mankind.” To this end, the Government will oppose any religious movement which has even the slightest inkling of a political identity. This line of thinking can be seen as one of the key problems in the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Tibetan Buddhism, in that, as we have seen, Tibetan Buddhism has long held a important role in Tibet, involving all affairs, including political.

In regards to religion, the policy of the PRC is one of control. However, the PRC has encountered some heavy problems when attempting to control something as entrenched as Tibetan Buddhism among the Tibetans. Tibet is historically a Buddhist kingdom, where politics and religion were one, thus when the People’s Liberation Army crossed the border in 1950 not only was the state of Tibet attacked, but so was the religion. The PRC clams that Tibet has always been a part of China and never an independent state and thus the treatment of its Tibetan ‘citizens’ was their business alone. The assertion that Tibet is a part of China is fiercely contested by the Tibetans.

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Finn Cheshire

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sherilyn | May 13th, 2002
without more info i can only make one minor objection, and that is that you can't define the relationship between two countries just on the events of one historical period- look at Germany.

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