Nowhere is China’s uneasy rule over Tibet more evident than in its handling of the Panchen Lama, a 15-year-old boy who was picked by Beijing over the objections of the exiled Dalai Lama, who wanted someone else.
Gyaltsen Norbu assumed the title of Panchen Lama in 1995, and has received a government education. Beijing says he is making progress in religious studies and surfs the internet in his free time.
Beijing’s control of the Panchen Lama is important to its strategy of controlling Tibet, since he would play a role in choosing the next Dalai Lama, the region’s dominant figure.
Beijing’s Panchen Lama rarely visits Tibet, and when he does is under heavy police escort – a sign of official nervousness about whether he has won public acceptance in the independence-minded region.
The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 during a failed uprising against Chinese rule, selected another boy as the 11th Panchen Lama, who by tradition is the reincarnation of his predecessor.
That boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, disappeared into government custody with his family and has not been heard from in more than a decade.
Beijing denies he is being detained.
“We do not accept the 11th Panchen Lama who was recognised by the Dalai Lama. We do not display his pictures at home or at the monastery,” said Pingla, a monk and director of the Tashilunpo’s government-appointed management committee.
“[Beijing’s Panchen Lama’s] speeches are according to the wishes of the 10th Panchen Lama, to teach the people how to love their country, how to love their religion, how to make peace”
Instead, pictures of Beijing’s Panchen Lama adorn the many altars at Tashilunpo, built in 1447 and home to 800 monks – the number limited by the Chinese government.
Activists say Beijing’s distrust of Tibetan Buddhism has gutted the practice of the religion.
Tibet’s monasteries have become “like museums”, said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of the activist group Students for a Free Tibet in New York.
“They’ve taken the heart and soul out of these institutions,” she said.
Devotees at Tashilunpo light candles and bow before pictures of the Beijing-picked Panchen Lama – a teenage boy with a friendly smile and kind eyes beneath his peaked yellow hat.
Outside the monastery gates, his picture is more scarce.
Instead, at the tidy row of shops just outside, merchants still display portraits of the previous Panchen Lama – the 10th – who died in 1989.
It is a subtle act of defiance, one that Beijing cannot outlaw.
“The 10th is good,” say two merchants in unison outside their shop selling incense and religious art.
China says it ‘peacefully
What about the 11th, the current one?
“The 10th is good,” they say again.
So you don’t like the 11th?
“The 10th is good.”
The merchants would not give their names, knowing well that anyone expressing dissent against Chinese rule could wind up with a long jail term.
But signs of defiance are easily visible, whether it is a Chinese flag flying upside-down from a telephone pole as a signal of distress or an empty picture frame for the Dalai Lama, whose image is banned in Tibet.
Just say the words “Dalai Lama” to a group of Tibetans, and they smile and give a thumbs-up.
The still-popular 10th Panchen Lama remained in Tibet after the Dalai Lama fled and openly challenged Chinese rule.
He was imprisoned from 1968 to 1977, and later kept under house arrest in Beijing before being allowed to return to Tibet, where he died unexpectedly in 1989.
Beijing says it has proof that its Panchen Lama is the reincarnation of the 10th, but it cannot sway those who do not believe.
Merchants: “The 10th [Panchen Lama] is good”
Journalist: “What about the 11th, the current one?”
Merchants: “The 10th is good”
Journalist: “So you don’t like the 11th?”
Merchants: “The 10th is good”
Conversation between two merchants and a journalist
“The 11th Panchen Lama was selected according to historic rituals and religious rituals as recognised by the central government,” Tashilunpo’s government-appointed management committee director, Pingla, said.
“His speeches are according to the wishes of the 10th Panchen Lama, to teach the people how to love their country, how to love their religion, how to make peace.”
China’s Panchen Lama “is studying in Beijing”, he said. “He has already come back many times and will come again in the future because the Tashilunpo Monastery is his home.”
At the monastery, smoke from countless candles has darkened the walls. Students place pens on the altars in the hope of doing well on their exams.
Monks spend hours studying communist theory in addition to religious scripture. Those loyal to Beijing wait patiently for 11th Panchen Lama’s next visit.
“The 10th is good,” a merchant said again as a reporter got up to leave. “Write it in your notebook.”