The party in monk’s robes: The cultivation of global Buddhism within CCP influence operations

A note on the CCP’s engagement with Buddhism in Mongolia, Japan and Australia.

The involvement of agencies across the PRC party-state in the cultivation of religious figures abroad points to the importance the CCP attaches to religion as a vessel of political influence. United front organs such as the Buddhist Association of China have targeted foreign religion since the Mao era, naturally extending a core domestic constituency. Beyond united front work, agencies from the CCP foreign affairs system and military intelligence also engage in religious influence abroad. The party’s influence agencies wear different robes to their engagement with religion in different foreign locales. This note samples this versatility of CCP influence work by reviewing three loci of the party’s exploitation of Buddhism. In Mongolia, the party embraces the Qing empire’s legacy, resuming a role as patron of Tibetan-transmitted Buddhism and overseer of reincarnation processes to counter the Dalai Lama’s influence. These imperial robes are, in fact, only recycled from what the party donned in Japan already under Mao: Buddhist exchanges as tokens of “peace” and “friendship” transcending politics helped build political ties that remain active today. In a Western country like Australia, Buddhism’s minority status allows CCP-linked Buddhist groups to reach mainstream politics by supplying officials with an easy shortcut to an image of multicultural engagement. Reincarnation, anti-militarism and multiculturalism, we finally observe, are concepts the party wears but does not genuinely espouse. Religion, we conclude, helps elucidate ideology’s role in influence work: foreign élites are as easily won by a Leninist party’s promises to “reform” or freely trade as an abbot might be by its donation of a monumental statue.

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