Rivalries and Relics: Examining China’s Buddhist Public Diplomacy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 5

Attendees at the Fifth World Buddhist Forum held in Putian (Fujian Province) in October 2018. (Xinhua)

In October 2018, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) hosted over 1,000 Buddhist scholars and representatives from 55 countries and regions at the Fifth World Buddhist Forum (WBF) in Putian, in China’s southeastern Fujian Province (Xinhua, October 28 2018). First held in 2006, and since convened every three years, the WBF has become a prominent event intended to promote China’s stature and influence in the Buddhist world. Buddhist monks and scholars representing different branches of Buddhism participate in WBF gatherings, and prominent international Buddhist leaders from across the world are invited to participate.

The officially atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has adopted religion for diplomatic purposes: Buddhism’s central tenets of non-violence, peace and tolerance make it a rich source of potential soft power, and the cultivation of Buddhist communities is emerging as an important component of the PRC’s initiatives in public diplomacy. In addition to hosting the WBF, China has cultivated Buddhist leaders, sent Buddhist relics on tours through Asian countries, and sought to use Buddhist ties to forge closer social linkages in Taiwan and Hong Kong (see below). The PRC has further promoted Buddhist public diplomacy efforts in countries impacted by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), hoping that Buddhism will soften China’s image in the eyes of local populations, and convince other nations that its rise as a global power is a peaceful one.

Seeking Positive Publicity in Hong Kong and Taiwan

A major part of the PRC’s Buddhist diplomacy is directed at Hong Kong and Taiwan, and seeks to emphasize themes of shared history, heritage, and culture. The WBC had its origin in joint discussions among monks from the PRC, Taiwan and Hong Kong in 2005; since then, the Forum has met at Hangzhou (2006), Wuxi and Taipei (2009), Hong Kong (2012), Wuxi again (2015), and Putian (2018). The sharing of the 2009 WBF events between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan had political significance, as it occurred amidst improving relations between the CCP and Taiwan’s then-ruling Kuomintang Party (Hindustan Times, March 27 2009). Furthermore, in a dramatic contrast to the destruction of temples during the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), in recent years PRC authorities have supported the renovation of temples in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Beijing hopes that such efforts will allow it to present itself as a preserver of China’s Buddhist heritage, and that this in turn will strengthen support for reunification (or closer reintegration) among the people of Taiwan and Hong Kong. [1]

“Relic Diplomacy”

In some Buddhist communities, the veneration of holy relics—most frequently human remains claimed to be those of the Buddha or other revered monks and scholars, as well as items they may have used—have been a part of popular religious devotion. Since the 1950s, the PRC has sent Buddhist relics for display in other countries—a practice known as “relic diplomacy,” which is aimed at winning public goodwill. In 2011, when protests over the Myitsone Dam project unleashed a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, China dispatched a Buddha’s tooth relic on a 48-day tour of Myanmar (Myanmar Times, August 15 2011). This paved the way for establishment of ties between Lingguang Temple in China, where the Buddha’s tooth relic resides, and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (People’s Daily Online, February 23 2012).  This was the fourth time since 1955 that this relic had been sent to Myanmar. China has also gifted or loaned Buddhist relics or their replicas to other countries, including Thailand, India and Sri Lanka.

The PRC’s relic diplomacy with Hong Kong is particularly strong. Hong Kong is the only place in the world to which China has sent three Buddha relics—his tooth, finger bone and skull bone—for display. In April 2012, Beijing sent a fragment of the Buddha’s skull bone to Hong Kong, the first time this relic was sent outside the mainland. The relic display was sent to honor Hong Kong’s hosting of the third World Buddhist Forum and the Buddha’s birthday (April 28)—and not coincidentally, the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s “return to the Motherland” (China Daily, April 26 2012).

Dealing with the Dalai Lama

For Beijing, the single most important motivation behind its Buddhist public diplomacy is the effort to counterbalance the global popularity of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Seeking to exert strict control over Tibetan political, social, and even religious life, senior CCP officials have vilified the Dalai Lama as a “wolf in monk’s robes” intent on “splitting up China and wrecking ethnic unity” (China Daily, March 12 2010; China Daily, March 7 2011). The Dalai Lama has been pointedly excluded from the WBF and other PRC-hosted Buddhist events. This is aimed at isolating the Tibetan spiritual leader and weakening his global stature. Many Tibetans fear that Beijing will also leverage the WBF in a future effort to interfere in the Dalai Lama’s succession, using the Forum to seek endorsement of the CCP’s appointee as 15th Dalai Lama (The Diplomat, March 27 2009).

The CCP has also attempted to use the WBF to advance its position in the struggle over designation of the Panchen Lama, the second-ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Most of the Tibetan exile community continues to recognize Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who disappeared into state custody (along with his family) in 1995 after the Dalai Lama recognized him as the 11th Panchen Lama (Central Tibetan Administration, May 17 2018). PRC authorities have designated a rival candidate, Gyaltsen Norbu, and have used the WBF as a mechanism to seek greater acceptance for him as the rightful holder of this position (The Diplomat, October 29 2018). Gyaltsen Norbu has appeared at WBF and other state-sponsored events, where he has called on audiences to support the CCP and “religious theories that go with socialist core values” (Xinhua, April 27 2012;  Xinhua, March 11, 2017).

Buddhism and the Belt and Road

In centuries past, the Silk Route played an important role in Buddhism’s transmission to Central Asia and Han China. Is China now turning to Buddhism to promote its own modern Silk Route?

One prominent example is visible in Sri Lanka, where China is constructing a 350-meter-high “Lotus Tower” in the capital city of Colombo. Named in deference to the Lotus Sutra, the design of the building draws inspiration from Buddhism, the religion of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. The Lotus Tower serves as a reminder to Sri Lankans of the two millennia-old Sino-Sri Lankan bonding through Buddhism—as well as their shared destiny through China’s ambitious BRI program (Colombo Telegraph, June 13 2018). The PRC’s linkage of BRI and Buddhist soft power was made evident at the 2018 WBF, where the use of Buddhism to promote BRI was among the issues on the agenda (Global Times, October 17 2018).

“A very conscious and coordinated governmental action to use Buddhist diplomacy in support of BRI” isn’t in place yet, says Malaysian scholar Ngeow Chow Bing. However as BRI gathers momentum and China accelerates its people-to-people exchanges along the trade routes, it can be expected “to increasingly mobilize Buddhism.” This is especially likely since several of BRI’s Asian member states are Buddhist and “strongly religious.” [2]

China may be expected to step up its Buddhist public diplomacy in cases where BRI projects encounter opposition in countries with large Buddhist populations. Sri Lanka’s experience is instructive in this regard: unable to repay huge loans it owes China for BRI projects, Sri Lanka has handed the Hambantota Port over to the Chinese (China Brief, January 5). This has triggered unease in the island, especially among the Sinhalese majority. The Lotus Tower project must be seen in this context: it plays into Buddhist-Sinhalese cultural pride, and the PRC hopes that this will convey a message of peaceful intentions in Sri Lanka. However, whether or not this will reduce Sri Lankan suspicions remains to be seen.

Image: An artist’s conception of the completed Lotus Tower rising over the Colombo city skyline. (Source: Youtube)

Indian and Chinese Competition for International Buddhist Leadership

India is also a country with a deep Buddhist heritage, and it draws on its status as the birthplace of Buddhism to claim leadership of the Buddhist world. India, like China, has been using Buddhism to seek influence in southeast Asia. This is evident in Myanmar, for instance, where in December 2013 India and Myanmar co-sponsored a competing event with the WBF, a three-day conference of Buddhist scholars at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in Yangon. Indian representatives used the event to unveil a five-meter statue of the Buddha—a personal gift from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—at Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist shrine (Al Jazeera, Jan 11 2013).

The Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry casts a long shadow over the two countries and their competing exercise of Buddhist diplomacy. India’s strong ties with Tibetan Buddhism—the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile, and a roughly 100,000-strong Tibetan exile community reside there—strengthen its Buddhist soft power immeasurably, and provide it with an advantage in the Sino-Indian competition over Buddhism. The Dalai Lama and his world-wide popularity comprise a rich soft power resource for India; for China, India’s drawing on this resource amounts to propping up the Dalai Lama. Consequently, India’s Buddhist diplomacy that involves the Dalai Lama in any way draws an angry response from the PRC. In 2011, when the Dalai Lama was the keynote speaker at the Indian government-sponsored Global Buddhist Congregation in Delhi, Beijing cancelled scheduled talks with New Delhi on their border dispute (Times of India, December 26 2011).

China’s Buddhist projects have, in turn, raised suspicion in India.  As part of its Buddhist diplomacy vis-à-vis Nepal, China is developing Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, as a major Buddhist site to draw pilgrims and tourists. As part of its BRI projects in Nepal, China proposes to link Lumbini by road and rail to Kyirong on the Sino-Nepal border, which in turn hooks on to the BRI network. Given Lumbini’s proximity to the Indian border, there is concern in India that Chinese presence so close to the Indian border will have security implications for India (Sunday Guardian, March 11 2018).

Asian countries are working together on bilateral and multilateral projects to revive ancient Buddhist sites or renovate Buddhist temples. Foremost among these multilateral projects is the revival of the Nalanda University project. Located in eastern India, Nalanda was a seat of Buddhist learning that flourished between the 5th and 12th centuries (Common Era).  In March 2006 India mooted the idea of reviving this university; and before long, China, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Australia, Russia and the United States were among the countries that offered support. China played a prominent role in this initiative by donating $1 million U.S. dollars towards a Chinese studies library for the planned university (Times of India, October 10, 2013). However, with India dragging its feet in getting the Nalanda project off the ground, China has gone ahead and set up its own rival institution: the Nanhai Buddhist College, established in 2017 in Hainan Province (New Indian Express, June 5, 2017). What started off as a collaborative effort has now become a competitive one.

Going Forward

Unlike other soft power resources specific to a country—like Bollywood for India, or the Confucius Institutes for China—Buddhism is a soft power resource shared among several Asian countries. However, China is drawing on Buddhist themes in its public diplomacy far more than other countries in Asia. The PRC’s use of Buddhism in public diplomacy has seen some successes: for example, it has contributed to greater interaction and cooperation between Buddhist monks and organizations in the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

However, China’s Buddhist soft power has limits. In its most important objective in Buddhist public diplomacy—delegitimizing the Dalai Lama and counterbalancing his popularity—the PRC has not achieved its goals, and the Dalai Lama remains the most well-known and popular Buddhist leader in the world. Neither has Beijing been able to garner broad support in the Buddhist world for its candidate as Panchen Lama. However, the PRC can be expected to maintain these efforts—and to intensify them following the 14th Dalai Lama’s passing, when the PRC will seek international endorsement for its decisions relating to the succession.

Beijing’s hopes of convincing its neighbors of its peaceful intentions have also not yet been realized. This is largely because of China’s aggressive actions on the ground: Buddhism cannot make the PRC seem a friendly neighbor when it continues to act unilaterally to bolster its position in territorial and other disputes. Thus its use of hard power is undermining its soft power diplomacy. Time will tell whether the image of a lotus blossom rising in Sri Lanka, or of militarized islands in the South China Sea, will ultimately prove to be the more compelling symbol of China’s rise.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher and journalist based in Bengaluru, India. She has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues for The Diplomat, Asia Times and the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.


[1] Andre Laliberté, “Buddhist Revival under State Watch,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, vol. 40, no. 2, 2011.

[2] Author’s interview with Ngeow Chow Bing (Director of the Institute of China Studies in the University of Malaya) in Kuala Lumpur, February 21.