THE quest for a small boy destined to become one of Tibetan Buddhism's most powerful leaders threatens to further split the former Himalayan kingdom now controlled by China.
The drama surrounding the selection of the new Panchen Lama, a key religious figure in Tibet, mirrors Beijing's unsteady grip on the region and resistance to what it regards as challenges to its sovereignty.
Hardening itself against growing international criticism, China said yesterday the new Panchen Lama, the second-most influential monk among Tibetan Buddhists, could be announced soon and attacked the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled god-king, for disrupting the search.
Last week, Chinese authorities summoned about 75 senior Tibetan lamas (or monks) to a secret conclave in Beijing for final ceremonies in choosing a young boy believed to be the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama who died in 1989. The Beijing-approved rites involved three final candidates selected through a series of ancient tests.
Earlier, the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate exiled in India since an aborted uprising in 1959, criticized China for rejecting the boy unveiled by him six months ago. He charged that Beijing is forcing the lamas to choose a rival candidate.
Last May, a Beijing-sanctioned search team at the Tashi Lunpo monastery in Tibet, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, had selected the six-year-old son of a Tibetan herder, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.
The Dalai Lama infuriated the Communist leadership by preempting them and identifying Gedhun Choekyi Nyima himself as the 11th Panchem Lama. But China nullified the choice as illegal and declared it would continue the search. The whereabouts of the designated boy are unknown.
The abbot at the Tashi Lunpo monastery, Chadrel Rinpoche, is reported to be under detention on suspicion of tipping off the Dalai Lama and under pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama's choice. Chinese officials, who say the monk is in nearby Sichuan Province for medical treatment, have named a pro-China clergyman as the new head of the selection team.
''These activities are entirely illegal and invalid and have been opposed resolutely by people from the Tibetan Buddhism circles and religious believers,'' said Li Ruihuan, a senior Communist Party leader, as quoted in the official English-language China Daily.
''The struggle centering on the reincarnation is not accidental. It has exposed once again the reactionary nature of the Dalai Clique,'' said Mr. Li. The article prominently featured a photograph of Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other party officials posing with the Tibetan lamas in Beijing.
''This controversy is likely to open up new rifts in Tibet,'' says an Asian diplomat here, explaining that senior Tibetan leaders already are divided over how to handle the region's contentious relations with China. After the communist victory in China, the Army invaded Tibet in 1950. Despite a vast Chinese military presence and a majority Han Chinese influx into Tibet, a pro-independence insurrection continues to simmer. To deepen its hold over Tibet, China last week announced it will step up economic assistance to the region, which lags economically behind other Chinese provinces.
''No one will ever accept a Panchen Lama who lacks the blessing of the Dalai Lama,'' says the diplomat, ''except the Chinese government.''
CHINA'S insistence on sanctioning the new Panchen Lama has been denounced by angry Tibetan Buddhists overseas. ''China's actions are in deliberate and total disregard for the potential of Tibetans to manage our own religious affairs,'' says Lodi Gyari, president of the Washington, D.C.-based International Campaign for Tibet, a human rights group and frequent critic of China. ''This sends a message to Tibetans ... that China has little intention of loosening its iron grip over Tibet.
''If China recognizes another Panchen Lama, for the remaining period of China's occupation of Tibet, it will be a major point of contention between this Chinese government and Tibetans,'' he says. ''A candidate chosen by an atheist government disregarding the unique historical and religious traditions of Tibet will be unacceptable to the Tibet people.''