Buddhist monks donating food to the poor should not be news. The concept of dana – giving to reduce attachment to worldly possessions – is considered central to Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage. But lately things have been different. In July and December, when the head of the Malwatta chapter and other senior monks donated food items to the poor, it did make the news. So did dry-ration distribution to the poor in Kandy and Anuradhapura districts this January.
The fanfare was unusual but understandable. This was not dana in the Buddhist sense but politics in a charitable guise. The monks were not giving away their own possessions, they were acting as conduits for donations from China. The Faxian Charity Project, the centrepiece of this effort, concluded its spree of hand-outs in Kandy, with a ceremony at the Nelligala temple. Present was China’s charge d’affaires in Sri Lanka, Hu Wei. In an interview with the local news website Sri Lanka Mirror, he warned against allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the island. He said he had spoken to senior prelates during his Kandy visit and “most of them know it very clearly that the Dalai Lama is not a pure monk and is trying to play another very negative role against China Sri Lanka relationship.” The diplomat also denied China’s role in holding up Sri Lanka’s debt-restructuring talks, a vital step to securing a much-needed IMF bailout, and expressed the hope that the Faxian Charity Project would soon cover the entire country.
Buddhist-to-Buddhist diplomacy is a relatively new instrument in China’s foreign policy. Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, and the resultant societal distress, has created an extremely favourable landscape for its deployment. Added to that is Beijing’s need for new avenues of influence in Sri Lanka after its earlier bets on the island went bad, threatening its influence in a place where it is deeply invested both economically and geopolitically. This is also fresh ground for the Sri Lankan clergy, steeped in the machinations of domestic politics but never before so cosy with a major international power. Given that the enmeshing of politics and religion – Buddhism especially – has been a bane of Sri Lanka’s modern history, China’s Buddhist-to-Buddhist diplomacy cannot but cause concern. It may open a fraught new dimension in Sri Lankan politics, with monks clamouring for power over how the country positions itself in the world and having an even greater say in its domestic realities.
Belt, Road – and Temple
China’s economic and political footprint in Sri Lanka grew dramatically from 2006, when Beijing offered to fund Mahinda Rajapaksa’s dream of turning the little harbour in his hometown of Hambantota into an international port (and name it after himself). Soon after winning the presidency in November 2005, Mahinda tried his luck with multiple potential funders, including India, and failed. China’s offer of bearing 85 percent of the cost, through a 15-year commercial loan for more than USD 300 million from Exim Bank, was eagerly accepted. So the port was built and hurriedly opened in November 2010 to mark Mahinda’s second presidential investiture and 65th birthday.
Though the project was a commercial failure, China’s loan spree continued. When the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, promoting infrastructure projects in developing countries to draw them closer into the Chinese fold, Sri Lanka was a snug fit. According to a report by Verité Research, a Colombo-based think tank, between 2010 and 2016 China lent USD 5.9 billion for infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa government even set up a special regulatory framework to enable unsolicited proposals by Chinese companies, bypassing normal tender procedures.
This is fresh ground for the Sri Lankan clergy, steeped in the machinations of domestic politics but never before so cosy with a major international power.
As China’s clout increased with its loans, Sri Lanka began to move away from its traditional policy of non-alignment between competing regional and global powers. And as China’s identification with the Rajapaksa administration intensified, Sri Lanka’s political opposition began to shift in an anti-Chinese direction. The Colombo Port City project, another white elephant birthed via an unsolicited proposal, has become a particular bone of contention. During the campaign for the 2015 presidential election, the opposition publicly pledged to scrap it. Mahinda lost that election and the new government began to recalibrate the country’s foreign policy, mending relations with India and the West. That March, as per the recommendations of a committee headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister at the time, the Port City project was suspended for irregularities in its procurement process and environmental impact study.
With a relatively less compliant government in office, Beijing’s Sri Lanka dream was in disarray. China needed new approaches and new friends to regain its lost clout. The idea of Buddhist-to-Buddhist diplomacy seems to have been born in this vacuum.
The Sri Lanka-China Buddhist Friendship Association came into being in August 2015 – shortly after the Rajapaksa dynasty suffered a second convincing defeat, this time in the parliamentary general election. The association’s purpose, according to its website, is to “develop historical Buddhist friendship between Sri Lanka and China.” Channelling Chinese charity to and through Buddhist temples seems to be its main activity. At one of its events, in 2020, the donation boxes stated clearly that the sponsor of the largesse was the Chinese embassy.
Interestingly, Sri Lanka does not seem to have similar associations set up with Buddhist-majority countries that follow the Theravada tradition, as Sri Lanka does. This includes Thailand and Myanmar, the two countries from which Sri Lankan monks regained their higher ordination rites and with which it has much closer historical ties.
In China, where the Mahayana tradition prevails, organised Buddhism exists, like most everything in the country, at the convenience of the state. Where Buddhists are not pliant, the Chinese government does not hesitate to use extreme methods of control. For instance, against all tradition, Beijing insists that designating the next Dalai Lama is its responsibility. In 2013, China inducted 21,000 Chinese Communist Party officials into Tibetan monasteries, arguing the measure was necessary to “guarantee the stable and safe operation of religious activity and manage monastery affairs.” The equivalent would be if the Sri Lankan government insisted on appointing the next round of chief prelates, starting with the heads of the Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters! (The heads of the Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters, the custodians of the Tooth Relic, are considered the preeminent prelates in the country.)
Given this reality, it is reasonable to assume that the sudden Chinese interest in fostering relations with Sri Lankan temples stems not from Chinese monks or lay Buddhists but from the Chinese state; and that the organisations which facilitate this outreach, such as the Sri Lanka-China Buddhist Friendship Association and Faxian Charity Project, are instruments of Chinese external policy. This is diplomacy by religious means.
The positive effect of all this charity on the recipient communities is unarguable. But these donations could have been made through non-religious channels – either normal administrative structures or secular social organisations. This is what China is doing in the north and parts of the east of Sri Lanka, where Buddhists are a minority, and where China and India are currently engaged in competitive charm offensives. But even there, religious diplomacy prevails. While the envoy of the atheist Chinese government has gone bare-chested to worship at a Hindu temple in Jaffna, the envoy of Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim government in India has visited a mosque in Kattankudy, near Batticaloa. Politics doth make strange bedfellows and stranger practices.
Already, Buddhist-to-Buddhist diplomacy seems to have earned Beijing an unprecedented level of impunity among the Sri Lankan sangha. In late 2021, Chinese authorities destroyed a 99-foot Buddha statue in Drago county, in eastern Tibet. Monks from a nearby monastery as well as locals were allegedly forced to watch the destruction, and 11 monks were subsequently arrested and accused of sending reports and pictures abroad. If a similar desecration had happened in any other country, Sri Lankan monks would have been out on the streets demanding the immediate cessation of diplomatic relations and other extreme measures. Though the incident was reported in Sri Lanka, mostly on social media, not a single Buddhist monk raised his voice in protest.
China’s Buddhist-to-Buddhist diplomacy cannot but cause concern. It may open a fraught new dimension in Sri Lankan politics, with monks clamouring for power over how the country positions itself in the world and having an even greater say in its domestic realities.
In December, a group of Sri Lankan monks on pilgrimage in India met the Dalai Lama and invited him to visit Sri Lanka. When the news broke, Hu Wei paid a series of hurried visits to senior monks. The Chinese embassy reported him telling the chief prelate of the Malwatta chapter – the same senior prelate who acted as a conduit for Chinese charity last year – that “both sides, especially the Buddhist communities, must prevent a sneaky visit by the Dalai Lama.” The monk responded by recalling his visit to Tibet, saying it was “quite different with what the western media portrays.” He went on to say, “China is the closest friend of Sri Lanka. Our relations with China must not be hurt. It is better that government also understand the importance of contribution rendered by China for the upliftment of Sri Lanka’s economy. We always (sic) indebted to China for their continued support and humanitarian assistance.”
For anyone who cares to look, there is ample evidence of the attendant dangers in bringing the Buddhist clergy deeper into Sri Lanka’s political life. Sinhala-Buddhist politicians have used monks to win elections and were, in turn, compelled to implement majoritarian and supremacist policies to appease them. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 is a case in point. Since that time, politically influential and organised monks have played a seminal role in scuttling ethnic reconciliation and inciting religious disharmony, especially with Christians and Muslims.
Faxian or Zheng He?
In May 2021, Belt and Road Initiative Sri Lanka announced on Twitter that the Vesak celebration organised by the Sri Lankan embassy in Beijing was attended by Xu Shi Yin’e, the ‘Lanka Princess’. Confused Sri Lankans were informed that this notable was, ostensibly, a 19th-generation descendent of a prince from the court of King Parakramabahu VI of Kotte. The post generated much derision, including from the former foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, who quipped, “Is she tipped to be the Viceroy of the new Port City?”
Beijing has tried, repeatedly, to use historical events and links to promote the BRI. Xi Jinping has mentioned two famous historical figures as forerunners of the BRI and its oceanic component, the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). One is the monk Faxian, who journeyed across the Subcontinent some 1600 years ago gathering Buddhist texts, and spent a couple of years on the island of Lanka. The other is Zheng He, the admiral of the Treasure Fleet, which dominated the Indian Ocean in the first three decades of the 15th century under the rule of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty. Both men have been hailed by Beijing as symbols of what it claims is China’s way of being in the world: peaceful, friendly and fraternal.
So China keeps Sri Lanka in painful limbo while using Sri Lankans’ agony to deepen its political footprint in the island through Buddhist-to-Buddhist diplomacy. Is China playing a waiting game until Colombo has a government more amenable to its demands?
Faxian was indeed a man of peace who travelled only to know and learn. But he was not an official representative of the Chinese state, just an individual monk who undertook his pilgrimage alone, on foot. This lone pilgrim cannot be considered an inspiration or forerunner of the BRI or MSR any more than the great explorer Ibn Battuta can be considered a symbol of ISIS’s dreamed-of global Caliphate simply because he happened to be Muslim. It is Zheng He, the mariner and imperial soldier intent on spreading Chinese power beyond Chinese shores, who has a true claim to this role. During his several forays, from East Asia to East Africa, wherever foreign rulers agreed to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor, he remained peaceful. Where they refused, he used force.
Like in Sri Lanka. When the Treasure Fleet arrived here, Veera Alakeshwara, the de facto ruler of the Kotte kingdom, refused to pay tribute and drove the Chinese away. Zheng He departed only to return, attack Kotte and take the impudent Sri Lankan ruler prisoner. As People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, has said, “In Ceylon (Sri Lanka), his men took an insubordinate ruler and replaced him with the legitimate malleable one.” This is the current official Chinese interpretation: insubordinate is illegitimate and malleable is legitimate.
Yang Rong, a politician and writer of the Ming Empire, left an account of the victorious finale of the Ming–Kotte war. He described captive Sri Lankans, including women and children, as “noxious pests” and “insignificant worms, deserving to die ten thousand times over.” Some prisoners, including Alakeshwara, were allowed to return after they “humbly kowtowed, making crude sounds and praising the sage-like virtue of the imperial Ming ruler.” Others remained in China, one of them being the forbearer of the ‘Lanka Princess’.
Buddhist-to-Buddhist diplomacy is a relatively new instrument in China’s foreign policy. Sri Lanka’s economic collapse, and the resultant societal distress, has created an extremely favourable landscape for its deployment.
In January 2022, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then the president of Sri Lanka, asked the visiting Chinese foreign minister for a restructuring of Chinese loans and a concessional trade-credit scheme, saying this would provide great relief. Sri Lanka was already on the edge of sovereign default and economic collapse, but China remained non-committal, later pushing its old demand for a free trade deal as the solution. The next month, while Sri Lanka was struggling to find foreign exchange for essential imports, China offered to upgrade the country’s BRI projects. Finally, this January, China offered Sri Lanka a two-year debt moratorium and promised to back its push for an IMF bailout, but it stopped short of agreeing to consider a haircut on its loans.
China’s share of Sri Lanka’s debt is around USD 7 billion, translating to 20 percent of total outstanding debt and 43 percent of total bilateral debt. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who replaced Gotabaya as president in July, has said that restructuring Sri Lanka’s debt is impossible until China agrees to “sing from the same hymn sheet” as the country’s other creditors. The restructuring is vital to cleaning up Sri Lanka’s economic mess, as it would open the door to the IMF bailout package. And no restructuring is possible until China agrees to take the same haircut as other creditors – a reduction in either the principal or interest income.
So China keeps Sri Lanka in painful limbo while using Sri Lankans’ agony to deepen its political footprint in the island through Buddhist-to-Buddhist diplomacy. Is China playing a waiting game until Colombo has a government more amenable to its demands? Capturing an insubordinate ruler and taking him away bodily, as Zheng He did with Alakeshwara, might not be possible in this day and age. But replacing an insubordinate ruler with a malleable one is very much doable – we have too many examples from modern times, most notably at the hands of the United States. In a 2018 exposé, the New York Times revealed how a concerned Beijing stepped in to assist Mahinda Rajapaksa during the 2015 presidential election. At least USD 7.6 million was transferred from an account of the China Harbour Engineering Company to his campaign affiliates. Mahinda still lost. Money doesn’t always win elections. But now, Beijing might have monks as well.
Tisaranee Gunasekara is a political commentator based in Colombo.