China expelling half the population of influential Tibetan Buddhist institute

[10 August 2016] At the end of July, Chinese authorities in Tibet began demolition work on Larung Gar, one of the world’s largest and most influential Tibetan Buddhist institutes. The government aims to halve the population and exert further control over the religious academy.  As well as the destruction of dwellings and expulsion of residents, the authorities are increasing surveillance, implementing entry screening procedures and forming new management committees to be led by a majority of government officials.

Demolition & expulsions | Official orders | Denial | Criticism | Background

Demolition and expulsions

Larung Gar demolitionOn 20 July, the demolition of dwellings at Larung Gar (pictured right & below), began with police officers and government officials accompanying Chinese work teams. According to reports, approximately 600 dwellings were razed in the first six days. Around 1,400 dwellings were marked for destruction by the end of July.  It is understood nuns’ homes and elderly people’s hostels were amongst the first wave of demolitions.

Larung Gar is located in in eastern Tibet in Serthar county, Kardze prefecture, in the traditional Tibetan province of Kham (now incorporated into China’s Sichuan province).

Larung Gar demolitionAn official government order (see below) on actions to be taken by local authorities at Larung Gar, states, “By September 30, 2017 the population of the encampment must be limited to 5,000 persons.” It is understood that the resulting population is to be made up of 3,500 nuns and 1,500 monks.  Though residences have been destroyed, it is not clear if residents have already been expelled from the area.

Monks, nuns and local people have followed the appeals of religious leaders at the monastery not to obstruct the demolitions or to protest, despite deep distress in the religious community. Tibetan lamas urged calm as the demolitions began, advising monks and nuns to continue with their studies and to focus on the Buddhist teachings, not the destruction of physical dwellings.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is believed to have taken an interest in Larung Gar, which may explain the government’s actions to exert strict control over the institute.

Larung Gar demolitionAccording to Radio Free Asia, since the demolitions began the Chinese authorities have stationed armed security forces at the work site and warned that attempts at protest or resistance will be punished by arrests and incarceration. In addition, communications from Larung Gar have been heavily censored with the authorities actively searching for anyone who has attempted to send send images of destroyed dwellings and other structures abroad. Phones and social media accounts are being monitored and visits to Larung Gar have been banned.

Official government orders

Official orders page 1Human Rights Watch translated an official government document (page 1 pictured right)describing in detail plans for the Larung Gar institute which include the demolition of dwellings, increasing surveillance and “ideological guidance”.

The following points are made on population reduction:

  • “In 2016, 2,200 people have to leave” including 1,200 monks and nuns, of which 600 must be “from other provinces”.
  • A total of 1,500 residences are to be destroyed by 30 October 2016, including “old age homes and nuns’ hostels”.
  • The reduced population must reach 5,000 by 30 September 2017 otherwise “the number of those to be expelled will be increased”. The order continues, “The government will strictly check the numbers and residences of expulsees.”
  • The final population of 5,000 can include no more than 1,000 people from other provinces.
  • The dwellings of lay practitioners are to be separated from those of monks and nuns, with a gap of 30 metres, and “given a different appearance” by the end of September.

Under the heading of “Promoting the law and ideological guidance”, the order states:

  • Monks and nuns must write letters and statements “of compliance with the law”.
  • Religious study and practice must be carried out “on the basis of following the law”.
  • Monks and nuns are to be shown “legal education film shows”.
  • “Legal education announcements” are to be made every month within the monastery.

In addition, the order stipulates:

  • “Camera surveillance and entry screening procedures” are to be installed and implemented by 31 August 2016.
  • The monastery (for the nuns) and the institute (for the monks) are to be officially divided, with the creation of “separate zones”.
  • The monastery and institute are to be run by distinct management committees both of which will be led by a majority of government officials.

Chinese denial

No official reason for the demolitions has been given, though the government order stated “correction and rectification obligations”. Officially, Larung Gar is undergoing “construction” and “development”.

Local government officials have criticised claims of demolition and destruction at Larung Gar. The Secretary of Serthar County’s United Front Work Department, Palkho, called such comments “totally untrue and irresponsible”. Palkho added, the goal is “to build a more orderly, beautiful, secure and peaceful land where people can practice peace of mind, study more precisely, and allow the elderly to live more comfortably, and at the same time accelerate the pace of urbanization and development in [nearby] Lo-Nor town.”

On 26 July, the Chinese state-run Global Times claimed Larung Gar’s Buddhist leaders “want to reduce the number of unregistered monks and nuns; they themselves discourage the unregistered from living there.”

International criticism

The order has been met with criticism in the international community. Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China Director, said, “If authorities somehow believe that the Larung Gar facilities are overcrowded, the answer is simple: allow Tibetans and other Buddhists to build more monasteries.”

On 8 August, the US State Department expressed concern that the Chinese authorities “initiated the demolition of residences at Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute without the consent of the institute’s leaders.” It urged the Chinese government “to cease actions that may escalate tensions and to pursue forthright consultations with the institute’s leaders to address any safety concerns in a way that does not infringe on the right of Tibetans to practice their religion freely.”


Larung Gar pre-demolition workThe Larung Gar Buddhist Institute (pictured right & below before demolition work started) is a highly respected and iconic centre of Tibetan Buddhism, renowned worldwide for its studies, teachings and promotional activities. It is considered the largest Buddhist academy in the world. 

Larung Gar is located in Serthar county, Kardze prefecture, in the traditional Tibetan province Kham (now incorporated into China’s Sichuan province). 

Larung Gar pre-demolition workPrior to the start of the demolition and expulsions, it is estimated 10,000 people lived and studied at the monastic community; a mixture of monks, nuns and laypeople, including both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists students.
Larung Gar was founded in 1980 by the late Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok as a training centre for Tibetan Buddhism. It quickly became one of the most influential Buddhist institutes in Tibet. 

Larung GarIn 2001, Chinese authorities razed hundreds of dwellings and expelled all Chinese students in an attempt to control the population size. At this time Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s health deteriorated and he was admitted to hospital. He died on 7 January 2004. Since then, Larung Gar has been allowed to operate and grow with minimal interference from the Chinese authorities.

Article 36 of China’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, however, in reality this right is neglected in Tibet. The Chinese government has attempted to control Tibetan Buddhism for decades. In the Tibet Autonomous Region all religious institutions are closely monitored, with government officials stationed at every monastery and nunnery. In recent years, this policy has spread into neighbouring Tibetan regions in Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces.

Larung Gar is of immeasurable importance in terms of Tibetan language, culture and religion and must be treasured and protected. The expulsions and demolitions are a serious abuse of the right to religious freedom. Tibetans should be allowed to practice and study their religion without interference from the Chinese government.

Further reading:
21 July: Demolition begins at Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Sichuan (RFA)
22 July: Larung Gar: China ‘destroys buildings’ at Tibetan Buddhist academy (BBC)
25 July: Demolitions begin at Larung Gar as religious teachers urge calm (ICT)
27 July: Groups upset over China’s demolition work at Buddhist institute (NY Times)
29 July: China claims Larung Gar under renovation (Phayul)
29 July: Destruction at Larung Gar, at least 600 structures torn down (RFA)
03 Aug: Chinese authorities block reporting from Larung Gar (RFA)

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