In 2021, while addressing a National Conference on work related to religious affairs, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “religions in China must be Chinese in orientation”.
Subsequently, China has been steadily building its own home-grown narrative on Buddhism, which hinges on a very controlled and regulated practice under the close supervision of the government and the Communist Party of China (CPC). At the same time China has realised the critical relevance of Buddhism as a soft power tool to camouflage its association with atheism. China is also shrewdly using the Buddhist narrative to push forward its economic and political ambitions abroad.
In declaring Buddhism as an indigenous religion, the CPC has argued that the faith was destroyed in in India, its birthplace. Thereafter China nurtured Buddhism, from where it spread to Southeast Asia and Japan. This declaration comes as part of China’s bigger effort to seed a new globalized Buddhist network under the Buddhism Belt Road Initiative (BRI). The project aims to revive ancient Buddhist connections and promote it through cultural exchanges in areas through which BRI threads. In recent years, China has been actively engaging in a unique form of geo-cultural diplomacy through its promotion and utilization of Buddhism as a tool for soft power projection.
Chinese Buddhist diplomacy is an approach that seeks to enhance China’s international influence by leveraging its rich Buddhist heritage and engaging with Buddhist communities worldwide. This strategy involves various initiatives, including cultural exchange programmes, infrastructure development, financial support, and the establishment of Buddhist organisations.
China’s commitment to Buddhism became evident in 2006 when it established the World Buddhist Forum. The recent fifth session of the forum, held in Fujian province, focused on various aspects of Buddhism and resolved to support the BRI. This initiative aims to promote economic and cultural connectivity between China and other countries, with Buddhism as a common bond.
#Lingshan Scenic Area in #Wuxi, #Jiangsu: 30-hectare site by Taihu Lake, permanent venue of the World Buddhist Forum, showcasing #Buddhist culture and the achievements of #Shakyamuni, integrating natural beauty, gardens, squares, and historical knowledge. #photograph pic.twitter.com/uVbRHdEZE4
— 江苏China Pearl (@ChinaPearl52076) June 6, 2023
One of the key aspects of China’s strategy is the promotion of Bodhisattvas and sacred Buddhist sites as religious pilgrimage destinations. Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara, Amitabha and Manjushri are being highlighted to attract devotees and tourists. Additionally, China has been replicating Buddhist holy sites in India, with the Brahma Palace in Wuxi being touted as a replica of Rajgir.
To further strengthen its Buddhist influence, China has been backing the Shugden faction of the Gelug School. In collaboration with the Shugden group based in Switzerland, China has instituted the annual Dipankar Atisha Peace Award, which provides financial support to propagate Shugden teachings.
Protesters at prayer breakfast are with Dorje Shugden, a breakway faction of Tibetan Buddhists critical of Dalai Lama pic.twitter.com/m38wyhjz0S
— Niraj Warikoo (@nwarikoo) February 5, 2015
China’s efforts extend beyond its borders, with Nepal being a significant focus. China aims to counter the religious influence of Bodh Gaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, by developing Lumbini, the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha. A proposed rail link between Lumbini and Kathmandu, which will connect to Lhasa and other Buddhist sites in China, is intended to facilitate the movement of Chinese tourists and pilgrims.
Pakistan, too, has attracted China’s attention in its efforts to promote Buddhism. The development of the Gandhara trail, which connects Pakistan to South Korea and Japan, is a priority. The establishment of Gandhara University and the promotion of Tibetan Buddhism founder Guru Padmasambhava’s birthplace in the Swat Valley further exemplify China’s intentions. Chinese authorities are taking Buddhist monks from Bhutan to the mythical Odiyana in Swat, aiming to attract Chinese followers of Tibetan Buddhism from around the world.
Plan your Greater Gandhara Heritage Trail of Pakistan -the ancient heartland of Buddhism- by following the first-ever Tourist Guide Map of Buddhist Sites in Pakistan, including more than 30 significant stupas and monasteries in KP, Punjab, Sindh, and GB. pic.twitter.com/lbMU5oqa27
— Nadeem Omar Tarar (@NOSHAHEED) December 22, 2021
In Bangladesh, the birthplace of Atisha Dipankar, a revered Buddhist figure associated with the second coming of Buddhism, China has provided financial and technical expertise to conserve Buddhist sites in Comilla. A joint China-Bangladesh team has also excavated the Bikrampur ruins, while China has engaged influential Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka through hefty donations to various Nikayas.
China’s efforts in Tibetan Buddhism are particularly notable. The Chinese government has taken steps to control the selection and recognition of reincarnate lamas, including the future succession of the Dalai Lama. Through these measures, China aims to shape the religious leadership and exert control over the narrative surrounding Tibetan Buddhism. This approach, while controversial, allows China to further strengthen its influence over Tibetan Buddhist communities worldwide. China’s preparations for the succession of the 14th Dalai Lama have raised concerns as it seeks to exert control over the process.
By downsizing the number of monks in monasteries and strategically appointing compliant monastic heads, China aims to create a loyal group of monks who align with its interests. To further solidify its influence, China has implemented Order No. 5 on Management Measures for Reincarnation of Lamas, which grants it authority over the identification and recognition of reincarnations. Already, China has taken steps to assert control over the selection of the next Dalai Lama by exerting influence on prominent Tibetan Buddhist figures such as the Panchen Lama, Penor, Reting, and Adoe Rinpoches. These actions highlight China’s efforts to manipulate the succession process and consolidate its power over Tibetan Buddhism.
Financial support plays a significant role in Chinese Buddhist diplomacy. China has donated to Buddhist organizations and monastic communities in various countries. These donations not only support the maintenance of religious institutions but also enable the propagation of Buddhist teachings and practices. By financially supporting influential Buddhist clergy and organizations, China seeks to cultivate relationships and gain influence within the global Buddhist community.
China’s influence over international Buddhist organizations is also growing. It has gained considerable sway over the International Council of Day of Vesak (ICDV), the World Fellowship of Buddhists, and other organizations in Korea and Taiwan. This influence is evident in the Common Text Project (CTP) undertaken by the ICDV, where Tibetan scholars have been marginalized, and Chinese texts have been given prominence over traditional Tibetan sources.
@ThailandUN and @SLUNNewYork co-hosted the commemoration of the International day of #Vesak 2023 at #UN Trusteeship Council Chamber. Thank you 🙏 to all who joined us on this auspicious day pic.twitter.com/2e4OBoHumq
— Sri Lanka at UN, NY (@SLUNNewYork) May 18, 2023
In 2021, China started South China Sea Buddhism Foundation to influence Buddhist countries of South China Sea. The first South China Sea Roundtable was organised in Shenzhen in 2021 and second was organised in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The aim of the roundtable is to cooperate with Buddhist temples and monasteries in the South China Sea.
The 2022 Phnom Penh Forum of the South China Sea Buddhism Roundtable Ends with Success, King Sihamoni Meets with Representatives of the South China Sea Buddhism Roundtable https://t.co/2g1lycjm8w pic.twitter.com/SIxOakHTWd
— Chhattisgarh Journal (@chhattisgarhjo1) December 20, 2022
China’s efforts to create a new Buddhist order and expand its influence in the global Buddhist community are significant. By promoting Buddhism as an indigenous Chinese religion and leveraging its economic power, China aims to shape the future of Buddhism and foster cultural exchange through initiatives like the BRI. While these actions have attracted both support and criticism, they undoubtedly mark a significant development in the landscape of Buddhism and China’s role within it.
China observers strongly feel that being an atheist state where the party is all powerful and in control, and where Tibetans and Uyghurs are persecuted endlessly, China intends using Buddhism to showcase its apparently accommodative attitude. The Chinese objective is to use Buddhism to gain maximum mileage in the country’s political and economic strategies and hence the BRI initiative of China can best be referred to as `BBRI’ – Buddhist Belt and Road Initiative. However, what matters to the world outside is how China realistically deals with its overall human rights record and religious freedom landscape.
(Dr.Chandan Kumar has a doctorate in Buddhism and is a Research Associate with International Buddhist Confederation)