© Reuters. Tibetan Buddhist monks walk the grounds of the Potala Palace overlooking the city of Lhasa during a government-organized media tour of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region on June 1, 2021. REUTERS / Martin Pollard
By Martin Quin Pollard
LHASA, China (Reuters) – Under clear blue skies, rugged peaks and the spectacular Potala Palace, one image is ubiquitous in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet: the portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders.
On a rare and closely supervised government tour of the region last week, a Reuters reporter saw the portraits in classrooms, streets, religious institutions, houses and the bedroom of a Buddhist monk.
More than a dozen other reporters were also on the trip.
China is expanding a political education campaign as it celebrates the 70th anniversary of its control over Tibet.
Chinese officials say the campaign is key to the future of Tibet, a region that accounts for more than 12% of China’s land mass but is home to just 3.5 million people, mostly ethnic Tibetans.
Civilians and religious figures arranged by the government to be interviewed on the five-day trip pledged loyalty to the Communist Party and Xi.
When asked who their spiritual leader was, a monk from Lhasa’s historic Jokhang Temple named Xi.
“I’m not drunk … I speak freely to you,” said the monk named Lhakpa, speaking from a courtyard dominated by security cameras and government observers.
The portraits of Xi were visible in almost all the sites visited by Reuters during the trip to Tibet, where journalists are prohibited from entering outside such tours. It was unclear when the posters and flags were put up.
“The posters coincide with a massive political education program called education to ‘feel gratitude for the party’,” said Robert Barnett, a veteran academic in Tibetan studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
China’s Foreign Ministry said, “Tibet’s economy and society have made great achievements under the care of the Chinese central government and the strong support of all Chinese.”
“The right to religious freedom of all ethnic groups in Tibet is protected by the Constitution and the law.”
During the visit, government officials suggested that those images, along with small Chinese flags that lined many streets in the city, were a sign of “patriotic sentiment” in Tibet.
Beijing says it “peacefully liberated” Tibet in 1951, after Chinese troops entered the then country and took over its administration.
The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and has since established a government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, India.
Beijing has labeled him a dangerous separatist and said that when he passes away, the government will select its own successor.
Reuters did not see any images of the Dalai Lama, previously common in homes across Tibet, on the May 31-June 5 trip.
Photos of the spiritual leader are now strictly prohibited, according to human rights groups and Tibetans who have since left the region.
The Foreign Ministry repeated China’s position that the Dalai Lama was “trying to separate Tibet from China.”
“Since the Dalai defected, he has done nothing good for the Tibetan people,” said Fan Chunwen, secretary of the Tibet Department of Education.
At the Tibet College of Buddhism, a major religious training school on the outskirts of Lhasa, Chinese flags flew over temples and images of Xi featured prominently in all the bedrooms and classrooms visited by Reuters.
“We are under the leadership of the Communist Party now, of course, we must learn about politics,” said Kelsang Wandui, deputy director of the university.
About 40% of the school’s curriculum was devoted to political and cultural education, Wandui said, adding that the monks will celebrate the next centenary of the Communist Party on July 1.
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), named after the exiled Tibetan government that oversees up to 150,000 Tibetans in exile, said that “the political re-education campaign has been revitalized to Sinicize Tibet.”
Beijing has always vigorously denied any accusations of rights abuses in Tibet, saying that people in China are free to practice approved religions, including Buddhism.
In a Lhasa high school political ideology class visited by Reuters, a teacher preached the benefits of China’s policy in Tibet and led them in chants of agreement.
“Our youth should appreciate the festival, listen to it, be guided by the festival and be loyal to our beautiful new Tibet,” said Wang Zhen, director of the Tibet Department of Education.