Government versus Religion
The Chinese government which is formally atheist (Communist) officially sanctions five religions, namely (according to official government data):
• Buddhism, which has 100 million adherents;
• Islam, with 18 million;
• Protestantism, with 20 million;
• Catholicism, with 6 million; and
• a smaller number of Taoists;
as well as unapproved cults, sects and so-called underground religions which are prospering; and given the government position, beginning to be the root of religious-based conflict. The government crackdown on the Falun Gong meditation movement is well known in the west. What is less well known is the government’s use of the law outlawing the Falun Gong to designate 10 Christian sects as illegal, while turning to what it calls “the illegal network of house churches” (mostly Protestant and Catholic) which serve an estimated 30 million to 40 million believers. In 1999 alone, more than 100 Christian leaders were arrested on such charges.
In fact, a 1999 US State Department report placed China near the top of a list of countries that suppress religion. This apparent increase in religious persecution follows a period in which China seemed to be growing more tolerant in spiritual matters. Apparently the Communist government perceives unregulated religious gatherings as a potential challenge to their authority.
In 2000 an article in the Washington Post by John Pomfret stated “A series of recent clashes between the Chinese government and a variety of spiritual groups indicates that religion, more than traditional kinds of political dissent, is now seen by the Communist Party as one of the most serious threats to its monopoly on power” (WP, January 11, 2000).
Chinese Government versus Panchen Buddhists
Though Tibetans trace their origins back to as early as 200 b.c., their credible history began in the late 6th century a.d. – the Tibetan kingdom being a power to reckon with in all of Central Asia during the succeeding 7th to 9th centuries. During that period Tibetans, in alliance with the western Turks, successfully challenged Chinese control of trade routes through Central Asia. It was also during this time that Tibetan Buddhism became a power and the great temple of Bsam-yas where Tibetans were trained as monks, was established. Tibet has been an “on/off” autonomous region of China since the 9th century, with the exception of a 100 year interval of independence in the 14th and 15th centuries. Other than that, sometimes Chinese control as been passive; at others as it has been since the 1950’s, it has been more active.
In early 2008 the Panchen Buddhists of Tibet once again rebelled against the increasingly tight religious and civil control placed by the Chinese government since its 1950 invasion of Tibet. However, beginning in the 2000’s, the new generation of Tibetans and Tibetan monks became less and less content to simply follow the “Middle Way” promulgated by the Dalai Lama, who believed that non-violent opposition to the ever-increasing controls of Tibet religious activity was the only way to reverse that trend. The younger monks, being less patient, overtly demanded a return to what they saw as their traditional rights of the freer exercise of their religion, using measures which led to conflict, violence, destruction of property and loss of life, particularly in the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. The immediate results of these demands and the demonstrations that followed, have led to more, not less, control by the Chinese central government.