ISSN 2330-717X

Panchen Lamas: A Reporter Looks Back – OpEd


By Dan Southerland


China has introduced its hand-picked Panchen Lama for the first time outside mainland China.

Media attention naturally focused on an April 26 speech given in Hong Kong by 22-year-old Gyaincain Norbu, whom Beijing named to be the Panchen Lama 17 years ago.

But the move underscores a larger issue: Beijing’s attempts to gain control or at least more influence over Buddhism not only inside Tibet but also throughout the Himalayan region.

It seems not to matter to Beijing that many Tibetans were distressed when China installed the then six-year-old Gyaincain Norbu as the Panchen Lama in 1995 while ignoring another boy chosen by the exiled Dalai Lama.

That boy quickly disappeared from sight and is believed to be under a kind of house arrest somewhere inside China.


Panchen Lamas

Panchen Lamas have long been recognized in Tibet as second in stature only to the Dalai Lama.

The installation of a new Panchen Lama handpicked by Beijing brings back memories of the 10th Panchen Lama, who passed away in 1989.

I was a reporter in Beijing during the 1980s but knew little about the 10th Panchen Lama.

I saw him once at a rubber-stamp National People’s Congress meeting in the mid-1980s and asked a question to which he responded with politically correct vagueness.

But then I got to know a Tibetan who worked closely with the Panchen Lama, who revealed to me details about this high-ranking lama’s privately held reservations about China’s domination of Tibet and how it was affecting Tibetan culture.

The issue was so sensitive at the time that my Tibetan friend and I began meeting late at night in various locations where we thought there would be no surveillance.

He gave me insights into the Tibetan situation that I could not have obtained otherwise.

But we broke off contact for several months after we saw what appeared to be police agents following us late one evening. Indeed, we immediately split up that night and ran in different directions down small Beijing alleyways.

It was only several months later that I dared to talk with him again.

Over time, I learned of the Panchen Lama’s history—his house arrest in the 1960s, his subsequent imprisonment for more than a decade, torture in prison, and public reemergence in the early 1980s.

One of the 10th Panchen Lama’s alleged crimes was to have written in 1962 a 70,000 character document, or petition, addressed to Premier Zhou Enlai that described the suppression of the Tibetan people during and after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950.

Controlling lamas and monasteries

Another cause for distress among Tibetans today is a Chinese government decision in 2007 to decree that China would begin overseeing the recognition of all reincarnate Tibetan lamas, or “Living Buddhas,” as the Chinese government calls them.

This would presumably include the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama himself.

The Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama is expected to sign off on China’s appointment of a new “Dalai Lama” once the current Dalai Lama dies.

More recently, in the wake of a series of self-immolations in Tibet, mostly by young monks and nuns, China has taken further steps to control monasteries by installing official Chinese management committees in each monastery.

Broader strategic moves

Beijing’s Panchen Lama represents just one of the chess pieces that China has at its disposal in its attempts to undermine the Dalai Lama, split Tibetan Buddhism, and project its soft power in the Himalayan region.

With seemingly limitless resources, Beijing has moved in Nepal, just to the south of Tibet, to gain influence if not control over a major Buddhist pilgrimage location in Lumbini, the site of the Buddha’s birthplace.

A little-known Hong Kong-based organization, which appears to be a front organization for China, announced plans last year to develop Lumbini as a major tourist organization.

The Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) said it wants to develop Lumbini as a “magnet” for the world’s Buddhists on a scale resembling Mecca for Muslims and the Vatican for Roman Catholics.

The venture is expected to cost $3 billion, according to the foundation.

Buddhism is a world religion for which there has never been a universal umbrella organization that embraces all of its sects, says Mikel Dunham, a writer, lecturer, and blogger who travels frequently to Nepal.

But, says Dunham, “I have no doubt that Beijing has spent considerable time evaluating the vacuum, and has come to the conclusion that the existing void could be used to China’s advantage and, as a result, is currently attempting to step in as ‘Buddhism’s international patron.’”

Propaganda offensive

This is a “brilliant propaganda ploy,” in Dunham’s view.

“Becoming Buddhism’s international patron could help to counter China’s international reputation as a repressor of religions.”

“It also could help—at least in Beijing’s mind—to marginalize the worldwide focus on the Dalai Lama as Buddhism’s leading spokesperson.”

The introduction of China’s Panchen at “The Third World Buddhist Conference” in Hong Kong toward the end of April brings back memories of the old Soviet-sponsored Asian Buddhist Council for Peace.

This group was headquartered in Mongolia, where the Communist Party backed by Soviet security forces did their best in the 1930s to eradicate Buddhism. In the process, they executed many of Mongolia’s Buddhist lamas.

Mixed results for China

In Nepal, the Chinese-backed move to take over Buddha’s birthplace has encountered obstacles. Nepalese cabinet ministers and journalists have raised questions about Chinese funding for the plan to turn Lumbini into a major tourist site with luxury hotels and shopping malls.

At the moment, Lumbini remains largly undisturbed, poor on a community level but “rich in history and beauty,” according to Maura Moynihan, a writer who visited Lumbini recently.

“It is an antique land where buffaloes wade through rice paddies, mothers stir dhal baat over woodfires, and jackals and vultures rule the night. It has remained so for centuries, from the time when Buddha wandered through these forests, 2,500 years ago.”

In Hong Kong, the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama was received without incident, though this has not been the case in China’s Tibetan-populated areas.

In late July of last year, the Chinese government attempted to parade the handpicked Panchen in a key Tibetan-majority area but shelved the move following widespread unhappiness expressed by monks, nuns, and laypeople.

The Panchen’s visit to the Labrang monastery, a key institution in Tibetan Buddhism, finally took place two weeks later, but only under tightly controlled conditions.

Dan Southerland is RFA’s Executive Editor.


Radio Free Asia’s mission is to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press. Content used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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