On the last weekend of October 2018, China played host to the fifth iteration of the World Buddhist Forum (WBF), held in the city of Putian, Fujian province. Over 1000 Buddhist dignitaries from 55 different countries and regions attended the conference, which, from its inception in 2006, has been organised by the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the supervisory organ of Buddhism in China overseen by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This forum is the latest instance of the unfolding paradigm shift in the country’s relationship with religion, and represents the next step in its efforts to reshape Buddhism as an instrument of diplomacy and influence.
China’s renewed support for Buddhism presents a striking contrast to the CCP’s rocky relationship with the faith that prevailed throughout much of the 20th century. Buddhism was stigmatised throughout the 1950s following the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It then encountered further repression during the Cultural Revolution, during which its adherents were persecuted and its temples destroyed. Yet, a gradual recovery has been evident in recent decades to the point where the CCP is now prepared to endorse a reimagined, more pragmatic brand of Buddhism inspired by realpolitik, one that will serve its interests both at home and abroad.
China is now seeking to define and control the Buddhist narrative on its own terms, by hosting the WBF for instance, instead of extinguishing it altogether, as it sought to do so previously. In doing so, President Xi’s China has cast itself as the focal point for Buddhism across the globe. Should the PRC be successful in this nation branding exercise, it will find itself at the vanguard of global Buddhism, and with this position comes a broad scope of influence.
This position at the forefront of Buddhism confers China a crucial medium to strengthen the influence of Chinese Buddhism relative to other sects, particularly with respect to Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has been notably absent from all five iterations of the WBF in China, which has instead served as a public platform for Gyaincain Norbu, the pro-Beijing Panchen Lama installed by the CCP. The Dalai Lama is considered a prominent advocate for Tibetan autonomy by the Chinese government, and is thus viewed as a threat to national unity. Hence, despite being the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the sect has found representation at the WBF predominantly through the CCP's Panchen Lama, who has used the opportunity to counterbalance the Dalai Lama’s influence and espouse a new, politicised brand of Buddhism backed by the PRC.
However, reports from previous years’ forums indicate that China’s Panchen Lama has not yet been embraced by the global Buddhist community. Furthermore, by excluding the Dalai Lama and incorporating only state-sanctioned content, the WBF fails to truly engage with and explore all spheres of Buddhism. Nevertheless, the consistently impressive patronage of the forum is indicative of the Buddhist community’s generally positive response to China’s initiative.
The latest WBF confirmed that China has expanded its conception of Buddhism as more than just a religion, as the event incorporated sub-forums focussed on themes such as the Maritime Silk Road and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), affairs not traditionally associated with faith or Buddhism. As China seeks to unite potential BRI allies across Southeast Asia, Buddhism may provide the means to “increase its influence with its religious neighbours”, according to the Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times. Indeed, there lies a slew of Buddhist countries throughout Southeast Asia with which China hopes to gain influence; and when complemented by the nation’s fresh image as a global champion of Buddhism, China’s BRI proposals will appear all the more enticing.
The consequences of the PRC’s Buddhist Diplomacy are currently unfolding in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where China’s BRI ventures have gained notoriety after Sri Lanka was compelled to sign away the newly developed Hambantota Port to a Chinese firm on a 99 year lease. China has funded a myriad of infrastructure projects across Sri Lanka, the most of recent of which is the Colombo Lotus Tower which, when completed, will be the tallest free-standing building in South Asia. The tower’s striking design resembles a lotus flower, the symbol of purity and detachment in Buddhism, and hence will undoubtedly foster a favourable perception of China in the Sri Lankan population, over 70 per cent of which is Buddhist. Yet some experts, including Patrick Mendis, Commissioner to the US National Commission for UNESCO, have labelled the Lotus Tower a “Trojan horse”, and caution against entering into unsustainable partnerships dressed up under a veneer of religious connectivity.
The number of Buddhists in China is estimated to be over 200 million, the most of any nation; and this, coupled with the rich history of Chinese Buddhism, lends legitimacy to China’s efforts in assuming the mantle as the new patron of global Buddhism.
Nevertheless, by politicising the faith, it’s clear that China’s vision for the role of Buddhism extends well beyond the scope of traditional religious affairs. If successful, Xi’s bet on this appropriation of Buddhism as the “glue that can help bond the region under the Chinese dream”, to quote Chinese state media, will not only facilitate the PRC’s projection of soft power throughout the Buddhist world, but will also serve to mitigate possible domestic flashpoints, such as those brought about by Tibetan separatist movements.
Max Collett is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.