China's control of religion in Tibet

“Religious groups… must adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”

President Xi Jinping, April 2016


Religion is one of the most distinctive and important aspects of Tibet’s unique culture. For the Chinese government, however, religion in Tibet is a political and security issue. Subduing monasteries, monks and nuns and controlling how Tibetans practise their religion is central to its plans to eliminate Tibetan resistance to its rule.

The US State Department's 2016 report on international religious freedom describes the repression of religious freedom in Tibet as “severe”. It records “reports of extrajudicial killings, prolonged detention without trial, torture, and arrests of individuals due to their religious practices”.

China’s control and suppression of Tibetan religious life is based on much more than violence. All aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are subject to state control and China has even claimed the right to appoint the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama.

Take action and learn more below.

Get involved

Are you a person of faith? We are building a coalition of religious leaders to join us. We will tell China that we will not accept any Dalai Lama chosen by them, and that the position must be filled as per the customs of Tibetan Buddhists. Click through to see how you can help.

Losang Thupten, arrested Ngaba 2 May 2016
Losang Thupten, arrested Ngaba 2 May 2016

China's fear of Tibetan Buddhism

Religion has played a key part in Tibet’s culture and politics throughout its history, and continues to be central to the lives of Tibetans today. The vast majority of Tibetans practise Tibetan Buddhism and retain a deep reverence for its leader, the Dalai Lama. For China, this means religious authorities and institutions are rivals to its authority and a threat.  

Because of their status as community leaders and their experience of persecution by China, monks and nuns have consistently been at the forefront of resistance to China’s rule, defending Tibetan language and culture, planning and leading protests, educating Tibetans about the social and environmental impacts of the occupation and in sending information about Tibet to the outside world. You can find out more about the role of monks and nuns in Tibet’s resistance on our pages about Tibet’s monasteries.  As a result, monks, nuns and other religious figures have been continual targets for surveillance, persecution, violence and propaganda.

Spotlight on monasteries

In Tibet today, local government and Communist Party officials take a direct role in the management of monasteries through “management committees”. Monasteries are required to fly Chinese flags and have portraits of the leaders of the Communist Party.  In 2015, a senior Communist official said that monks should behave in a “patriotic and law-abiding” manner. Surveillance cameras and even police stations are located inside and outside monasteries and regular inspections to uncover signs of loyalty to the Dalai Lama take place.

When unrest occurs in any Tibetan area, the security spotlight will fall on its religious institutions. Following political disturbances in Driru County in the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2013 and 2014, monks and nuns were arrested for both participating in protest and for allegedly planning future protests. 

They are often subject to “patriotic re-education” – intensive propaganda sessions in which teams of officials and party cadres subject monks and nuns to propaganda and compel them to agree that Tibet is an inalienable part of China or denounce the Dalai Lama. Monks and nuns who have refused to do so have been arrested, tortured and expelled from their monasteries.


Military at Gaden Ngachod monastery

Religious restrictions in everyday life

Restrictions on religious freedom have a direct and significant impact on lay Tibetans. Pilgrimages to sacred sites are strictly controlled and it has become almost impossible for Tibetans to obtain permission to attend religious teachings outside China. Mining or other resource exploitation on sacred sites is commonly permitted and often provokes protest.

Large gatherings of Tibetans are perceived as a threat by the authorities. As a result, security forces are often deployed at prayer festivals and other religious gatherings. In July 2013 Chinese security forces opened fire on a crowd in Tawu County, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, that had gathered to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Funerals are also a threat. The bodies of self-immolation protesters who die at the scene or in custody are often cremated by police to prevent normal religious ceremonies and prayer services can be banned.

Tibetan family openly celebrate 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama in 2015
Family celebrates 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama inside Tibet 2015

Reincarnation and the Dalai Lama

China asserts its right to control one of the fundamental aspects of Tibetan Buddhist belief: reincarnation. There are thousands of reincarnated “lamas” in Tibet and China’s atheist regime claims the right to “approve” them all. It also plans to control the most important reincarnation of all: the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama.

For China, the greatest religious threat it faces is the almost universal devotion felt by Tibetans for the Dalai Lama. His exile from Tibet remains one of Tibetans’ deepest grievances under Chinese rule. Tibetan writers, singers and protesters frequently call for his return – and are punished for it. China demonises him, as with a state media article accusing him of sympathy for Islamic State. His pictures and teachings are banned and Tibetans face harsh punishments for being found in possession of them. In January 2014 the Tibetan monk Thardhod Gyaltsen was sentenced to 18 years in prison after police found him storing pictures and recordings of the Dalai Lama during a raid on his monastery in 2013.

Beijing’s strategy is to control Tibetan Buddhism at the very highest level by deciding who the new Dalai Lama will be after the death of the 14th. It has taken this approach before.  In 1995, it abducted Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (pictured below), a six-year-old boy who had been identified by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama – generally regarded as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. He has not been seen in public since. Instead, China appointed its own “Panchen Lama”, who has a political role in Beijing and is rejected by Tibetans as a fake.

If it appoints its own "Dalai Lama", China will be subverting the deep spiritual traditions of Tibetan Buddhism for its political ends. The Dalai Lama has said he will consult with religious authorities and Tibetans on whether there should be a 15th Dalai Lama and, if the institution is to continue, will leave clear instructions on the process to identify his reincarnation. He has stated clearly that only someone chosen by that method will be the true Dalai Lama.

Members of the Chinese government have described his position as “blasphemy” and a “betrayal”. Undoubtedly, however, a Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama would be universally rejected by Tibetans.

Gyaltsen Norbu and Xi Jinping
Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima
A nunnery demolished in Driru this September

Say no to China's Dalai Lama

China has no right to interfere in the selection of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Many Western governments are  willing to in some way challenge China on the issue of religious freedom. Now we need them to explicitly state that they would not recognise a Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama.

This is a matter of fundamental importance to Tibetans. Please add your voice to our campaign to ensure that no Dalai Lama appointed by China is ever recognised.