It has been argued that Beijing’s new confidence in its Tibet policy germinates from the advancing age of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese leadership thinks that the issue of Tibet will eventually die out with the passing away of the Dalai Lama. This shortsighted thinking, however, could prove disaster for China in achieving its long-held vision of multi-ethnic harmonious society.
In the meantime, Beijing is strengthening the spiritual image of Gyaltsen Norbu, a boy appointed by the Communist Party as the 11th Panchen Lama. China’s appointment came right after the Dalai Lama recognized Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the unmistaken reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama in May 1995 that eventually led to the abduction of the boy and his family members by Chinese authorities.
A widespread street gossip at the time in Lhasa was that Gyaltsen Norbu was Ragdi’s Panchen Lama. The gossip is not entirely baseless. When the Chinese leadership finally decided to name its sole candidate who just happened to come from Nagchu, a region Ragdi calls his home. Ragdi, a Tibetan party cadre, was the second highest boss just next to a party secretary in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). He was believed to be equally powerful and influential. He was given the sole authority to promote, demote and transfer of Tibetan party cadres in the TAR. One should note the fact that the post of party secretary has been reserved solely for Han Chinese, except in 1985 an interruption by a Yi minority party cadre in the Han dominated lineage in the fifty some years history of the TAR.
The work has not done yet done for the Chinese leadership. The biggest challenge is to win the hearts and minds of Tibetan people for China’s appointed Panchen Lama. In fact, Tibetan people right from the beginning showed their disapproval. There is a story of Tibetan resistance to the China-appointed Panchen Lama in 2011 when he was brought to Labrang monastery in northeastern Tibet. Tibetans quietly demonstrated their disapproval by tying khata, Tibetan greeting scarf, to a tree outside the monastery after their public audience with him. It goes without saying that China forces Tibetans to come to his reception, failure to do so will face severe consequences like job extermination. Arja Rinpoche, former abbot of Kumbum monastery in northeastern Tibet, who fled to America noted that “Just forcing him on the faithful cannot win hearts and minds but keeping him in Beijing all the time is also not good for his reputation”.
At the same time, Beijing is equally concerned about his international recognition. In a bid to raise his international stature, Gyaltsen Norbu made his maiden trip outside of China in 2012 when he visited Hong Kong to attend the third World Buddhist Forum. I have stated elsewhere that his Hong Kong visit was part of Beijing’s intention to boost his international standing and recognition. The Hong Kong visit was seen as trial for his future overseas visit.
In May this year, Gyaltsen Norbu made his second visit outside of China. This time to Thailand as a part of Buddhist delegation led by Yanjue, the acting president of the Buddhist Association of China. I believe Beijing deliberately picked Thailand after Hong Kong for his overseas visit primarily to lay a strong foundation for him in Asia. Beijing will gradually expand his visit to other Buddhist majority countries in Asia that sits along the Belt and Road Initiative. For instance, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Mongolia is definitely in Beijing’s blueprint.
This begets a simple question why Beijing is so keen in promoting Gyaltsen Norbu. The obvious answer is the Dalai Lama who will turn 84 years this July. In fact, Beijing is quietly laying a spiritual foundation for Gyaltsen Norbu in the hope that this will give him the spiritual gravitas to select the next Dalai Lama.
*Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.