Tibetan exiles and Buddhist leaders in India have heaped criticism on China after it demolished a 99-foot-tall Buddha statue last month, amid fears of a fresh Cultural Revolution style crackdown on religious institutions not only in Tibet but across the country.
The bronze statue at Kham Drakgo in the Tibetan dominant area of China’s western province of Sichuan was erected in 2015.
“The demolition of the huge Buddha statue at Kham Drakgo is a clear case of cultural genocide. This is as bad if not worse than the barbaric destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban,” said Ruby Mukherjee , Eastern India regional convenor of the Indo-Tibetan Coordination Office (ITCO) at the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).
She called for global action to resist China’s “planned decimation of the rich Tibetan culture.”
Tibetan exiles working for CTA say that not only was the Buddha statue demolished but 45 huge prayer wheels erected near Drakgo Monastery were also destroyed and thousands of prayer flags burned down.
The county chief of the Chinese Communist Party Wang Dongshen not only directed the demolition brazenly, they said, but he also forced monks from Thoesam Gatsel monastery and Tibetans living in Chuwar and other nearby towns to witness the demolition, which began on December 12 and continued for the next nine days.
But they don’t want to be identified because their relatives back in Tibet could suffer Chinese vendetta.
The bronze statue was built with great effort and generous contributions from the local Tibetans in Drakgo after it was damaged in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake and another milder one six years later.
“ The 99 foot statue cost a whopping 400 million Yuan (around $ 6.3 million). The region has suffered huge earthquakes in 1973 and 2008. The 99-foot-tall Buddha statue was erected on 5 October 2015 to ward off natural disasters in the future,” said CTA sources .
They said the 99 feet tall Buddha bronze statue was built after local authorities gave all necessary permissions and even “praised” the commissioning of the statue.
But on 12 December 2021, the same county authorities “invalidated” the permission and said the statue had to be demolished because it was “too tall” for an earthquake prone region.
“ This was like during the Cultural Revolution when all Buddhist relics and institutions faced wanton destruction at the hand of the Red Guards,” said a 78 year old Tibetan exile who just wanted to be identified as Norbu. He lives in Gangtok.
“But the Chinese intent of cultural genocide becomes clear because they also destroyed the 45 prayer wheels that costed around 1,800,000 Yuan (around $ 282,500 ) . The burning down of the prayer flags in the vicinity is also evidence that a fresh wave of Chinese suppression is underway against Tibetans,” ITCO’s Ruby Mukherjee told News9Live.
CTA sources say the demolition of the Buddha statue follows immediately after that of the Drakgo Monastery’s Gaden Namgyal Monastic School, the most important educational hub in the area , teaching not only Tibetan language and Buddhism but also Mandarin and English.
After the school was closed on grounds of “inadequate documentation’ , its 130 students were forced to return to their villages, without access or enrolment in other schools.
“ The Chinese government has completely violated the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people, including religious rights, language rights and rights to preserve and practice one’s own culture and tradition,” said Bimal Thisya Bhikkhu , a senior Buddhist monk in Kolkata heading the ‘Sishu Koruna Sangha’ .
Radio Free Asia has verified the destruction of the Buddha bronze statue by analysis of commercial satellite imagery available to it.
But the attack against Buddhist institutions is not limited to Tibetan areas but also in mixed populated areas.
In 2020, Chinese authorities demolished a 1,000-year-old Buddhist temple in its Shanxi province.
The Fuyun Temple was located 8.5km north-east of Taiyuan airport on the Wujin mountain top .
The Buddhist temple in Shanxi province had become an eyesore to the majority of Han population in this area. The Fuyun Temple gaining popularity amongst the followers of Buddhism in Chinese as well as Tibetan population was unpalatable to the Chinese Communist Party government in Yuci district of Jinzhong prefecture.
But the drive against Buddhist sites seems to mark a reversal of Chinese policy which had not only allowed more of its people to practice Buddhism but also used it to woo Buddhist countries in the neighborhood until a few years back.
This writer found hundreds of worshippers at the historic Da’Cien Buddhist temple in the ancient city of Xi’an in 2009. Priests said the temple had been restored after extensive damage during the Cultural Revolution . The worshippers carried lots of incense sticks.
In November 2011, China sent a Buddha tooth relic on a mobile display to several cities in Myanmar, including former capital Yangon and present capital Naypyidaw.
This relic had been preserved in Beijing’s Lingguang Si Temple and it drew huge crowds of prayerful worshippers. The event was widely reported in Chinese media, and was followed by an agreement between the Lingguang Si Temple and Shwedagon Pagoda to promote religious ties between the two nations.
In Nepal, China has been financing a $3bn project to develop Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, with a new airport, a connecting highway, hotels, convention centres, temples and a Buddhist university.
In 2011, the Beijing-based Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation to develop the project.
“This was clearly a Chinese effort to build a parallel to India’s Bodh Gaya, which remains the major attraction for Buddhist tourists across the world,” said Mrinal Chakma, who runs a service company for Buddhist tourists in eastern India.
Former Indian foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan recalls understanding between India and China to work together to trace the journeys of famous Chinese travellers to ancient India in an effort to work in the civilizational connect to improve bilateral ties.
” At one time some years back there was talk of India and China working together on Faxian and Xuanjang’s journey’s to India. I do not know what happened to those matters . I imagine all such ideas have blown up with the bilateral tensions after the 2017 Doklam crisis,” Srinivasan told News9Live.
As Chinese president Xi Jinping consolidates his grip on the Communist Party ahead of the party Congress later this year, the country seems headed for a tough crackdown against dissenters and believers at home .
China’s neighbors, India included, should also brace for more muscle-flexing by the Dragon both in the Himalayas and in the Indian Ocean.
Display of aggression at home and abroad is part and parcel of developing the Mao-type cult of an Invincible strong leader. Xi seems to be taking that path to overcome multiple challenges at home — a stagnating post-Covid economy, growing unemployment, rising tensions with US and the West.
Some say the crackdown in Tibet has a message for India — play the Tibet card if you want, we don’t care.