Some families in Tibet are being forced to replace portraits of the Dalai Lamai with those of President Xi Jinping of China in order to continue receiving government aid, as authorities clamp down on efforts to assimilate minorities.

Pictures and public devotion of the Dalai Lama, who is considered a separatist by the Chinese state, are banned in the region, but households in far-flung areas have generally been able to continue to worship the exiled Tibetan religious leader in private.

It is difficult to determine precisely when the order began, but a notice issued in December 2018 by officials in Tibet’s Amdo County demanded that locals “clean up” images of the Dalai Lama in their homes, Buddhist temples and monasteries and replace them with portraits of Xi and Mao Zedong, French daily La Croix reported earlier this year. The notice also called on village leaders to monitor the display of Chinese Communist Party leaders’ images.

"Abide with Xi Jinping's sinicization of Buddhism"

Orders like this are part of a sweeping campaign by authorities to suppress religions considered un-Chinese. For years, officials have been visiting towns and villages in Tibet to test locals on their knowledge of party leaders’ names and force them to hang their portraits, said Wangden Kyab, a senior researcher at the human rights group Tibet Watch in Dharamsala, India, who is in contact with sources in Tibet. Now the government is threatening to cut off some families’ subsidies if they don’t comply, Kyab added.

The subsidies can include a small amount of money for people listed under the poverty line, but also school fees for children and grocery reductions at stores.

People are told to put portraits of party leaders in their homes and also in monasteries, temples and public halls. Many households have refused to put the portraits up on the altars, or put them off to the side. But in certain areas, officials go house to house to check that they are on the altar.

A shrine to Xi Jinping. (Courtesy of Free Tibet)

There have been many incidents of Tibetans being arrested because officials found portraits of the Dalai Lama or books by the Dalai Lama in their homes. And there is an ongoing campaign in Tibet involving delegates from monasteries, who undergo a month-long training session in which they are told that Tibetan Buddhism should abide with Xi Jinping’s sinicization of Buddhism, and the delegates have to go back to their monasteries and then train their monks with the same message.

"The Chinese Communist Party wants to enforce loyalty"

Several media outlets reported in early June that poor Tibetan families were being offered cash payments by the state in return for hanging up the portraits, but it is more likely that the families risked losing their subsidies if they refused, said John Jones, campaign manager at the advocacy group Free Tibet.

One of the threats made against Tibetans who fail to replace the images might have been that the aid would stop. It’s a tactic Chinese authorities commonly use against families of individuals who carry out self-immolation to protest Chinese rule.

The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly been trying to bring Tibetan Buddhism under control. It’s historically been one of the main sources of resistance to the party, and the resistance has come from monks and religious leaders. The party believes that if it can make them loyal to the state and bring them under the idea of ‘one China,’ then the resistance will soon vanish.

Monks have been practicing within tight, approved boundaries. For example, authorities restrict the number of people that monasteries can take on, or the monasteries have to fly Chinese flags or hang up portraits of party leaders.

The party is trying to enforce loyalty and, with time, destroy the idea that Tibet is a separate country and culture.

Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1950, and the region has remained under tight control since the failed 1959 uprising. Foreign diplomats and journalists have virtually no access to the region.

Last year, a Tibetan activist who sought to save his language was sentenced to five years in prison. Tashi Wangchuk had told The New York Times in a series of interviews in 2015 that he was concerned that the Mandarin Chinese imposed by the state in schools and in government would imperil Tibetan children’s ability to read and write in their own language.

The Dalai Lama, in exile in India, is still revered among the more than 6 million Tibetans in China. Authorities have vowed to “sinicize” religion in the country and integrate Tibetans fully into Chinese culture.

This story was written by Jenny Che.