The People’s Republic of China (PRC) likes to promote that its constitution enshrines freedom of religion, as well as the freedom not to believe in a religion, and bans discrimination on the grounds of religion or lack thereof. The important — but unstated — caveat is that religion must be state-sanctioned.
The PRC also likes to send delegations to international events, including religious gatherings. However, it is often reluctant to play by the rules of such gatherings (as Taiwanese know all too well), a tendency it demonstrated once again this week when 17 Chinese delegates left the South Korean city of Yeosu in a huff because they had not been able to get the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) to toss out a delegation of Tibetan Buddhists from a biannual gathering.
The WFB was founded in May 1950 to bring together representatives of different Buddhists sects, be they of the Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana traditions, and, quoting from the fellowship’s Web site: “To secure unity, solidarity and brotherhood amongst Buddhists.”
Chinese delegations have attended other WFB gatherings where Tibetan delegations were present, such as the previous one, held in Sri Lanka. The problem this time, apparently, was the make-up of the Tibetan delegation, which included Samdhong Rinpoche, a monk and former prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and Peme Chhinjor, minister of religion and culture in the government and the most senior member of the Cabinet.
On Tuesday, three Tibetan delegates were forced to leave a delegates’ assembly meeting after the Chinese threatened to boycott it and the WFB secretary-general conceded China’s demand, but on Tuesday night it was the Chinese who walked out of the opening ceremony because the Tibetans refused to leave. The Chinese said they did not want to share the same venue as people they said represented the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Chhinjor told the Korea Herald that organizers had asked him to go outside because of the Chinese complaints, but he refused because he had been invited by the conference organizers, he is a member of the WFB and “this is [South] Korea, not Beijing.” He also downplayed the incident, saying it was “Nothing so special, Chinese are always like that.”
What was special was the reaction of the event’s organizers, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, who accused the Chinese delegation of “lacking the least respect and consideration” for a religious event. While saying the departure of the Chinese was regrettable, the order said in a statement that: “The Chinese delegates only prioritized their own political agenda by refusing to accept the presence of a Tibetan delegation officially registered as a member of the WFB.”
The statement went on to demand a sincere apology from the Chinese delegation and a promise that such an incident would never happen again. The Jogye Order also said it sympathized with the religious activities of Tibetan Buddhists and would “seriously reconsider” ties with Chinese Buddhists.
The Chinese delegates may not have had much of a say in the matter, given that media reports of their departure noted that they left in a vehicle provided by the Chinese embassy in South Korea. It is highly likely that Chinese embassy officials demanded they toe the party line and leave once it became clear that they would not be able to bully the conference organizers into ousting the Tibetans. Nevertheless, their show of pique does no credit to the Chinese claims of freedom of religion.