China’s attempts to play Buddhist politics and further its strategic agenda, by concurrently organising two international conferences last month in Lumbini in Nepal and Hong Kong both failed. They also revealed a schism within the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD).
Important factors contributing to this setback are the CCP’s apparent unwillingness to address the growing incidence of self-immolations among Tibetan Buddhists; inability to calm restiveness in Tibet and Tibetan-populated areas in China; and the policy of consistently excluding the Dalai Lama. Reports filtering out of Beijing cite factional in-fighting within the UFWD, which handles all matters relating to China’s non-communist entities and ethnic minorities, including Tibet and the Dalai Lama, as a concern.
Beijing for the first time planned to demonstrate its influence in Nepal by organising an international convention in Buddha’s birth-place of Lumbini between April 27-30. China first exhibited interest in Lumbini in June 2011, when the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), a Chinese government-sponsored NGO, proposed a $3 billion plan for its development. Lumbini’s inhabitants protested at not being consulted and the plan was dropped.
The composition of APECF’s board hints strongly at links with the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xiao Wunan, a senior CCP cadre is the executive vice president of APECF. He envisages the proposed university in Lumbini as rivalling that planned at Nalanda. The Foundation’s executive director Eric Tay, graduated in 1993 from China’s Air Force Institute of Engineering. Nepal’s pro-Beijing Maoist leader Prachanda, is the vice chairman of APECF.
Though the Nepalese government did not approve APECF’s proposal, its unwillingness to discard China’s proposal was indicated when it constituted the Greater Lumbini National Development Directive Committee (GLNDDC) under the chairmanship of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’. The GLNDDC initiated plans for this three day ‘international’ event in Lumbini in late April.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s visit was to be the highlight and he was to co-chair a conference on Lumbini with UCPN-Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. China’s agenda was evident in the exclusion of the Dalai Lama from this essentially Buddhist event. It was reinforced by the comment of a GLNDDC member, that the Dalai Lama could visit after “the leadership of China will find ways to deal with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which will be respectful of the Chinese people”. Ban Ki-moon’s decision to visit Lumbini, later dropped, attracted widespread media criticism in Nepal.
While it hints strongly at China’s influence, Xiao Wunan played a key role. He used his wide network of contacts in South Korea to revive the Lumbini proposal. In October, an APECF co-chairman and retired Australian ambassador to South Korea with interests in mining in China, was requested to facilitate a meeting with Ban Ki-moon in Australia to discuss re-floating of the Lumbini project. That Ban Ki-moon and his mother are devout Buddhists would have helped. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai followed up Xiao Wunan’s efforts with an official invitation to Ban Ki-moon on March 16.
Despite Xiao Wunan’s efforts the events in Lumbini failed to materialise. Reports additionally suggest that differences exist within the UFWD, with one group siding with the military and security establishment that favours a firmer governmental grip over Nepal rather than pushing this ‘soft power’.
Beijing’s other major initiative was the third World Buddhist Forum from April 25-27, in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Its objective continues to be to obtain legitimacy and support of the domestic and global Buddhist community and enhance tacit recognition of the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama. The latter assumes significance following the Dalai Lama’s assertion last September that Beijing has no legitimacy in such selections. The forums are additionally intended to project China’s global leadership of Buddhists.
While China’s official media publicised that over a thousand religious personages and leading scholars from 50 countries attended, but the absence of prominent religious leaders considerably muted the event’s impact. The supreme religious patriarchs and prominent delegates from Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Russia and Japan did not attend despite the close government level relations between China and these countries.
Zhu Weiqun, deputy head of the CCP CC’s UFWD, and Wang Zuo’an, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) both attended. In his first public appearance outside mainland China, the Chinese-appointed 11th Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu, delivered a keynote speech on the Buddha Dharma.
Intriguingly, among the greetings messages received by the forum was one from Ban Ki-moon. He said the forum’s proposals would be “helpful for the work of the UN in the fields of peace, development and human rights”.
The Dalai Lama’s avowed critics, Akong Tulku of Samyeling Monastery, Scotland and Gangchen Lama, founder of the LG World Peace Foundation, Italy and worshipper of the Shugden Deity, attended. Many who attended the 60th anniversary celebrations of the ‘peaceful’ liberation of Tibet last year were, however, absent.
A dozen persons from India attended including Ven Dhammaviryo, a critic of the Dalai Lama. Rather surprisingly, Ravindra Panth, director of the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University), India, sent a congratulatory message.
Importantly, the third World Buddhist Forum revealed factionalism inside the CCP’s United Front establishment, which was triggered by the APECF’s bid to take charge. Xiao Wunan’s APECF established a Hong Kong-registered company, ‘Link-wise’, to handle all communications and funds for World Buddhist Forums. APECF’s activism, however, accentuated differences with the UFWD. Reports suggest that Wang Zuo’an declined to release funding for the forum unless the money already disbursed so far to APECF was accounted for. Consequently, the Hong Kong Buddhist Association, which hosted the forum, received only approximately $1.75 million and had to raise the rest. The extent of rift was evident when Xiao Wunan pointedly did not attend the third World Buddhist Forum.
The differences within the United Front establishment could be reflective of the in-fighting underway at the highest echelons of the CCP. While rumours circulating in Beijing suggest Xiao Wunan is associated with Xi Jinping, PBSC member Jia Qinglin who oversees UFWD is a Jiang Zemin loyalist. Wang Zuo’an though reputedly personally affable, is credited with believing that religious freedom is the Party’s prerogative to bestow or determine.
(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India