China's Panchen Lama enters political arena
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - China's handpicked 11th Panchen Lama, born Gyaltsen Norbu
in northern Tibet, made his political debut this month at the annual session of
the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing,
appearing as a national committee member of the top political advisory body.
Observers expect the 20-year-old Panchen Lama will be named a vice chairman of
the CPPCC within the next couple of years, though he was not, as expected,
given the post this year. While the title is largely honorary, it is an
important national leadership post similar to one his predecessor, the 10th
Panchen Lama, held when he died in 1989.
Beijing hopes that with an elevated political status the 11th
Panchen Lama will more effectively keep the the influence of the exiled Dalai
Lama in check among Tibetans. Traditionally, the Panchen Lama is respected as
the second-highest ranking leader in Tibetan Buddhism, second only to the Dalai
In Dharamsala, the Tibetan government in exile and exiled Tibetans insist that
Gyaltsen Norbu is not the legitimate 11th Panchen Lama, since he was appointed
by the Chinese government and is not acknowledged by the Dalai Lama as the
reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.
However, they are concerned that Beijing's elevation of his political profile
could affects the choice of successor to the Dalai Lama, who is 74. In Tibetan
Buddhism, the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama normally needs to be
acknowledged by the Dalai Lama, and vice versa.
In 1995, the six-year-old boy Gendun Choekyi Nyima was named as the
reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama, but he and his family
disappeared soon after and have not been heard from since. The Tibetan
community living in exile in north India say Chinese authorities are keeping
him in detention.
Beijing's Panchen Lama was named a new member of the CPPCC's National Committee
in late February. At the same time he was also elected the vice president of
China's state-run Buddhist Association.
"I have shouldered the mission of safeguarding national unity and ethnic
solidarity since I was enthroned," Gyaltsen Norbu told the official Xinhua news
agency on March 4. "Now, such a sense of responsibility is becoming even
A slight man who wears thick glasses and traditional crimson robes, Gyaltsen
Norbu was the youngest delegate at the CPPCC, which is made up of 2,200
business leaders, religious figures, academics and celebrities and advises the
ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
At the meeting, Norbu advised China's other religious figures to listen more
closely to their communities. "People place great expectations on us. We will
continue to do our best not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify our
minds, and to help people from the roots up. We must do good rather than evil,
on however humble a scale."
Norbu, whose parents are both members of the CCP, has been promoted by Beijing
as the official face of Tibetan Buddhism in China. China has been raising the
profile of its young Lama while stepping up its efforts to reduce the influence
of the current Dalai Lama in Tibet, where he served as the God-King.
While the Dalai Lama has criticized the CCP's ethnic policies in Tibet, blaming
the ruling party for the erosion of Tibetan culture and for curtailing
religious freedoms, the Panchen Lama has been a strong supporter of party
policy. He has begun to make more public appearances in Tibet alongside
Norbu's appointment to the CPPCC does not change his role or give him any
decision-making powers, but it does underscore the CCP's efforts to legitimize
his position, say analysts.
"This is a pro-forma elevation for him to a titular role that does not amount
to much in terms of actual decision-making or policy," Srikanth Kondapalli,
chairman of the Center for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University,
told the Hindu. "This could also be a move to placate the views of Tibetans,
both in China and outside."
Hao Peng, vice chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and therefore the
official voice of the government, told AsiaNews that "the Panchen Lama's
participation in social activities in China demonstrates the important role of
the living Buddha in our world. Norbu is very popular in Tibet, and we all are
very happy for his appointment. I hope he can continue in this vein, showing
love for the motherland."
However, Norbu rarely visits the Tashilunpo monastery in Tibet to which the
Panchen Lama traditionally belongs. The young man spends most of his time in
Beijing, studying and surrounded by the care and control of the CCP.
Despite this, Gyaltsen Norbu was not "elected" this year as a vice chairman of
the CPPCC, as was widely predicted.
Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet issues from Indiana University's Central
Eurasia Studies Center, told the South China Morning Post that the delay in the
Panchen Lama's elevation hoped to avoid his rise seeming too precipitous.
The Panchen Lama has helped the CCP build influence among Tibetan Buddhists
across the world by playing a key role in state-sponsored conferences like the
World Buddhist Congress and making statements praising the government.
While has not joined the government's campaign to vilify the Dalai Lama,
observers say his new position as a member of the CPPCC means that he soon
could. They speculate that he will start participating in press conferences on
Tibet-related issues and travel around the world to canvass support for the
government's point of view.
It will be interesting to see what message Norbu has for Tibetans in exile; the
news of his political elevation was greeted with mistrust by the Tibetan
communities living in north India. Some said it was a "gift" by Beijing to the
Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile to mark the 51st anniversary on March 10 of
Uprising Day, a failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule in 1959.
During his annual address to mark the uprising, the Dalai Lama said the Chinese
government was keeping "the monks and nuns [of Tibet] in prison-like
conditions", and deliberately "annihilating Buddhism".
On the same day, young Tibetans protested at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi.
"There are no human rights in Tibet; it shows that Tibet is not part of China;
we are a free country," said one of the demonstrators, who were carrying
placards calling for the release of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai
Lama-endorsed Panchen Lama. "The 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet is the world's
youngest political prisoner," said the banners. Nyima, aged six at the time he
disappeared, would now be 14.
"The Chinese do not appear too intelligent; they hope that their appointed
Panchen Lama will listen to them," Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the
Tibetan government in exile, told AsiaNews. "However, their puppet is a Tibetan
and sooner or later his roots and heart will be manifest and all the
indoctrination and grooming by the Chinese will be to no avail."
Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile, told Asia
Times Online that the political elevation of Beijing's Panchen Lama was of no
significance to the Tibetan people. "In the eyes of Tibetans he [Norbu] has no
legitimacy. It's just an image-building exercise by Beijing. He is used as a
tool by no fault of his own.
"The real reincarnation is inside China, but he has been captured. If the
genuine Lama receives his rightful status then it is good. But China's
appointed Lama will get no respect, maybe he is a fortunate boy but we cannot
recognize him as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. His rise will not
affect so much; he is not able to live in his own monastery. This act is just
for namesake and there would be no influencing. There is no respect from the
monks - this gives a clear indication" said Thupten.
But Tibetans acknowledge that the rise of Panchen Lama could influence the
selection of the next Dalai Lama. "Seeing the new post and rise of Beijing's
Panchen Lama will alter the Tibetan people's view," said Thupten, adding that
Panchen Lama carries extra spiritual weight. He said that while the selection
of next Dalai Lama is the one of the main responsibilities of the Tibetan
government in exile, the approval of high-ranking lamas in exile will also
"I wish the genuine Panchen Lama flees to India like the Dalai Lama and Karmapa
Lama. Tibetan unity will be strong and above all Tibetan Buddhism will be
saved" said Jamphel Sichoe, a young Tibetan.
China has shed some light on the life of the other Panchen Lama, denying he is
in detention. The newly appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, told media
on the sidelines of the CPPCC that the young man is living in Tibet, where "his
brothers and sisters are attending university or doing regular work".
He gave no hint as to the family's whereabouts but repeated the Communist
Party's mantra: "As far as I know, his family and he are now living a very good
life in Tibet. He and his family are reluctant to be disturbed. They want to
live an ordinary life."
Padma Choling said that the candidate for Panchen Lama picked by the Dalai Lama
was illegitimate and invalid, Xinhua reported. Beijing says it has the
historical right to appoint leading Tibetan lamas.
How the issue of the Dalai Lama's succession will be resolved is likely to
depend on relations between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. In this
context, it will be interesting to see how Beijing's Panchen Lama shapes his
own political future; and if he will exploit the international spotlight.
If an agreement can be reached before the current Dalai Lama dies, then the
Tibetan government in exile could avoid a repeat of the the confusion and
international opprobrium that has surrounded the Panchen Lama succession.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at [email protected]