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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tale of two lamas: The battle for Tibet's soul

April 5, 2009

By Kent Ewing
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
Apr 4, 2009

HONG KONG -- The Chinese leadership's answer to
the Dalai Lama, the 19-year-old Panchen Lama, has
emerged after a prolonged
childhood-to-adolescence hibernation. He speaks
Tibetan, Puthongua and - rev up the global PR
machine - scripted English. Whatever language he
chooses, however, he invariably uses it to back the central government.

As Beijing last week marked the 50th anniversary
of the failed Tibetan uprising that prompted the
Dalai Lama's flight into exile in India, the
Panchen Lama had nothing but praise for Chinese
rule of the troubled Himalayan region. Meanwhile,
stewing in his headquarters-in-exile in
Dharamsala, the 73-year-old Dalai Lama accused
China of creating "hell on Earth" in Tibet.

This week the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile
made a point of traveling to New Delhi to thank
India for taking him in as a "refugee" and
offering "care and support" following his
dramatic escape on horseback in 1959. Also this
week, scientists at the University of Toronto's
Munk Center for International Studies issued a
report claiming that hackers based in China had
infiltrated at least 1,295 computers of
governments and private offices in 103 countries,
including the Dalai Lama's headquarters.

The fact that the Chinese chose to celebrate the
Dalai Lama's 50th year in exile by inaugurating a
new holiday on March 28 - Serfs Emancipation Day
- no doubt added insult to injury in Dharamsala.
And the Panchen Lama, traditionally regarded as
the second-highest religious figure in Tibetan
Buddhism, did his part to support Beijing's
portrayal of the Tibet Autonomous Region as a
backwater of feudalism before the Chinese
takeover and clearly denounced the Dalai Lama, albeit without naming him.

"I want to sincerely thank the Communist Party
for giving me a set of clear eyes, so I can tell
right from wrong," the Panchen Lama said at a
forum marking the new holiday. "I can clearly
recognize who loves the Tibetan people and who
for personal motives unscrupulously wrecks Tibet's tranquility and stability."

In addition, the party's chief mouthpiece, the
People's Daily, carried an essay by the Panchen
Lama in which he described himself as a
"descendent of serfs" and stated: "Facts show
that it is only under the leadership of the
Communist Party of China that Tibet can enjoy its
current prosperity and an even better future."

The Panchen Lama also made a splash at the Second
World Buddhist Forum, which started in the
lakeside city of Wuxi in eastern Jiangsu province
last week, and this week moved to Taiwan's
capital of Taipei. He was the only one of the
1,300 monks, nuns and scholars from around the
world to arrive in Wuxi accompanied by a security detail.

It was at the first such forum - held in Zhejiang
province in 2006 - that the Panchen Lama gave his
maiden speech as a religious leader. At that time, he spoke in Tibetan.

Significantly, targeting a worldwide audience for
whom the Dalai Lama has become an enduring symbol
of resistance to Beijing's heavy-handed policies
in Tibet, he used English in his six-minute Wuxi address last Saturday.

"I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to
our central government for their kindly concern
in hosting this forum," he said. "This event
fully demonstrates that today's China enjoys
social harmony, stability and religious freedom,
and also shows that China is a nation that
safeguards and promotes world peace."

Different language, same message: all praise to
the Chinese leadership for its wise and
compassionate rule. The Wuxi leg of the forum
certainly provided a grand backdrop for this
theme with its imposing recreations of Buddhist
prayer palaces situated in a large park that is
also home to an ancient Buddhist site.

A 300-member orchestra and choir opened the
conference, which was attended by representatives
of more than 50 countries and regions and titled
"A Harmonious World, a Synergy of Conditions".
Kung Fu film star Jet Li made an appearance in
what, in the end, amounted to a show that was more style than substance.

Overall, the forum was a slickly staged attempt
by Beijing, whose officially atheist communist
doctrine has persecuted Buddhists in the past, to
reclaim China's 2,000-year-old ties to Buddhism -
minus, of course, the Dalai Lama and anyone who supports him.

It won't work.

The youthful Panchen Lama, son of two Communist
Party members, apparently will be leading the
charge against the aging patriarch of Tibetan
Buddhism. But no grandiose architectural
recreation of China's Buddhist past - even if
supplemented by a choir, an orchestra and a movie
star - is going to compensate for his patent illegitimacy.

Born Gyaincain Norbu, the Panchen Lama was
enthroned in 1995 as the 11th reincarnation of
the second-most revered figure in the Gelugpa
sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The ceremony was
organized by the Communist Party. His
predecessor, who died in 1989, was at times
imprisoned by Chinese leaders for refusing to toe the party line.

The child chosen as successor by the Dalai Lama
disappeared from public view soon after his
selection and has never been seen again.

Throughout his childhood and adolescence, the
Panchen Lama was kept under tight wraps by
Chinese authorities, so the last few weeks
represent a kind of coming-out party for him. But
its effectiveness has not, and will not, reverberate beyond China.

The Panchen Lama has never been interviewed by
foreign media and is not, despite his grand
title, accepted by Tibetans as a spiritual
leader. While photographs of his predecessor are
common in Tibetan temples, it is rare to see one of him.

In the region, the Tibetan diaspora and beyond,
he is seen for what he is: another propaganda
tool wielded to undermine the authority of the
Dalai Lama. No objective observer can take
seriously anything he says - no matter how many languages it is packaged in.

By all indications, when the Dalai Lama dies,
Beijing will also select a faux reincarnation
born to loyal members of the party. But the
farcical result will be the same. This Dalai
Lama, the 14th, could very well be the last whom
Tibetans - and most of the rest of the world - will recognize.

Chinese leaders may hope that the Buddhist forum
will project a new image of China as a bastion of
religious tolerance, but that is unlikely to
happen. For too many, there was a huge void where
the Dalai Lama - winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace
Prize and the internationally recognized face of
Tibetan Buddhism - should have been sitting.

The forum was intended to serve as an exemplar of
Beijing's use of soft power, but instead, at
least outside China, it is likely to be perceived
as another glitzy propaganda show with a callow impostor taking center stage.

Indeed, Beijing has been far more effective in
brandishing its economic might against the Dalai
Lama than in any softer approach it has chosen.
Naked threats seem to work, especially now that
the global financial crisis has left the United
States and its European allies in a weak economic
position as China's gross domestic product
continues to grow, although not by the leaps and bounds of the past.

Propaganda ploys, on the other hand, because they
are so often as specious and unconvincing as the
Panchen Lama's forum performance, ultimately wind
up redounding against Chinese authorities while
giving the Dalai Lama the moral upper hand.

The South African government certainly heard
Beijing's economic message loud and clear when it
refused to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama to
attend a peace conference in Johannesburg last
week. A government spokesman, after an initial
denial, admitted that the country, China's
largest trading partner on the continent, did not
want to jeopardize relations with Beijing by
appearing to embrace one of its enemies.

Even after two fellow winners of the Nobel Peace
Prize from South Africa - retired Cape Town
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the country's last
white president, F W de Klerk - announced that
they were boycotting the conference because of
the visa flap, government officials stuck to
their guns. The conference has since been postponed indefinitely.

President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, who has made
warmer relations and enhanced economic ties with
Beijing a priority since he assumed office last
May, has also stated clearly that the Dalai Lama
is not welcome on the island - during the
Buddhist forum or at any other time. The fact
that Taiwan, regarded as a renegade province of
China by the central government, is co-hosting
this conference with the mainland is less about
promoting Buddhism than continuing a political
thaw in relations after eight rocky years under
former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian, who is currently on trial for graft.

It is through its economic strength, backed by
increasing military power, that Beijing aims to
push Taiwan toward reunification with the motherland.

On the sidelines of the Group of 20 London
summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao met his
French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday.
The meeting came hours after China and France
issued a press communique in which France pledged
not to support "Tibet independence" in any form.
And in the meeting, Sarkozy said that no matter
how France-China relations changed, he believed
there was only one China in the world, with
Taiwan and Tibet constituting inalienable parts
of Chinese territory, according to Xinhua News
Agency. Relations between China and France
worsened last December when Sarkozy decided to
meet with the Dalai Lama in Poland.

As the global economy tanks, China is sitting on
more than US$2 trillion in foreign-exchange
reserves. If Chinese leaders are to succeed,
among their many other goals, in marginalizing
the Dalai Lama and his followers, it will be with
cold, hard cash, not lama puppets on a string.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and
writer. He can be reached at

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