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Sixty years after China brutally squashed the Tibetan uprising against the Communist Party, it's still ruling with an iron fist, making Tibet one of the least free regions in the world. But even as they continue to oppress Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese leaders are strategically leveraging Buddhism in their quest to dominate global trade.
Tibetans rallied this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the failed uprising, protesting the continued occupation of their land and restrictions on their freedom — tens of thousands of Communist cadres supervise Buddhist monasteries and villages, people are forced to replace pictures of the Dalai Lama with photos of Party leaders, and China boasts Tibet’s capital as its “safest” city.
“One of the prime requirements for monks and nuns is that they should be loyal to the Communist Party before they are loyal to their faith,” Bhuchung Tsering, the vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet, told VICE News. “Everything is being dictated by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Yet China has invested heavily in projecting itself as pro-Buddhist, for calculated reasons. Buddhists make up a huge population in countries that China wants to connect to its Belt and Road Initiative — a multibillion-dollar project to dominate global trade.
Take, for example, Myanmar. In the last decade, China has actively worked to improve religious relations with its southern neighbor, which is 88 percent Buddhist. In that same time frame, it spent $2.5 billion to build oil and gas pipelines and is now negotiating multibillion-dollar port and dam deals.
“China's use of Buddhist diplomacy is significant because several of these countries are apprehensive of this giant power — whether all the loans they are taking from China will drive them into a debt trap,” Dr. Sudha Ramachandran, a South Asia analyst, told VICE News.
The latest case of China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” is Sri Lanka.
After the Chinese helped the country’s Buddhist majority win a decades-long civil war, Sri Lanka’s president gave China a billion-dollar port deal in his hometown. Eight years after the deal was signed, Sri Lanka was unable to pay back its loans and surrendered the Hambantota port to China for 99 years as repayment.
“In all these countries, you find that the public feels that, 'Well if we want improved infrastructure, it is only the Chinese who are willing to, you know, extend loans.” Ramachandran told VICE News. “Yes, there is a concern, but there is no other alternative.”
This segment originally aired March 13, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.