BEIJING — A SIX-YEAR-OLD Tibetan boy named as a key religious figure has stirred a bitter new row between China and the Dalai Lama, Tibet's revered spiritual leader.
The Dalai Lama, head of Tibet's government in exile for over 30 years, ignited the dispute last week when he announced the boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, had been revealed as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second most important monk.
Claiming Beijing, not the Dalai Lama, should have final say, officially atheist China fiercely denounced the Tibetan leader and pledged to pursue its own search. The previous Panchen Lama, who died in 1989 and whose spirit is believed to be reincarnated in a child, stayed behind when the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.
Highly regarded by Tibetan Buddhists, the former Panchen Lama became a key mediator between Beijing and independence-minded Tibetan monks, protested China's brutality in Tibet, and served nine years under house arrest during the Cultural Revolution. But he was also a controversial figure regarded by many Tibetans as under China's influence and supporting reconciliation.
The controversial search
The search for the next incarnation of the Panchen Lama is a cornerstone of Chinese policy toward Tibet, the Himalayan region that has periodically exploded with independence protests since China occupied it in 1950. The Dalai Lama backs more autonomy, while Beijing charges he supports independence and claims the area as under Chinese control since the 13th century.
''The Dalai Lama is more than a religious figure. He is a political exile involved in activities designated to split the motherland,'' a Chinese spokesman said.
''In their hearts, Tibetans cannot accept any choice announced by the government that does not have the blessing of the Dalai Lama,'' says a Tibetan monk in China who is familiar with the issue. The government did not say that it had turned down the candidate of the Dalai Lama.
Western diplomats here say the leader had been under pressure to recognize a reincarnation by Tibetan exiles frustrated with his efforts to achieve a negotiated nonviolent settlement. ''It's hard to see how any kind of talks can continue in light of the current standoff,'' a diplomat said.
The dispute erupted after the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dalai Lama recently warned that time was slipping away for a negotiated settlement and that Chinese settlers and economic policies are overwhelming Tibetan culture. China has rehabilitated monasteries in Tibet that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. But many Tibetans claim that Beijing has merely turned the temples into museum-like centers under government control.
Contending that the Dalai Lama has violated Tibetan Buddhist tradition in endorsing his designated candidate for Panchen Lama, Beijing has gone to great lengths in recent days to shore up its claim to final endorsement of any new Buddhist leader.
Finding a successor
Relying upon public testament from government-sanctioned religious leaders, Beijing says the proper procedure for finding the successor is to designate three boys as candidates who are then asked to identify the late Panchen Lama's utensils with the help of prayer. The final test is to draw lots from a golden urn placed beneath the statue of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, with the chosen candidate receiving final government approval. Officials accused the Dalai Lama of dismissing the drawing in violation of his Buddhist sect and the last wishes of the late Panchen Lama. ''I hope the Panchen Lama's reincarnation will be confirmed through drawing lots in front of Sakyamuni ... followed by approval by the State Council,'' says Zhao Puchu, president of the official Buddhist Association of China, which was headed by the former Panchen Lama.
The Chinese press said that leading Tibetan religious leaders criticized the Dalai Lama's endorsement. ''I'm very indignant about this,'' Gyaga Losangtamqo, a member of the official search team for the Panchen Lama, was quoted as saying in the China Daily. ''It runs totally counter to the religious rituals, and [we] will never recognize it.''
In a statement released from his headquarters in Dharmsala, India, the Dalai Lama said that traditional procedures have been strictly followed in the search, which was conducted by the Tashi Lumpo Monastery, the traditional home of the Panchen Lama in Shigatse, Tibet.