LHASA, China — In the contest for Tibetan hearts and minds, a 26-year-old Buddhist monk is emerging into the spotlight. He is the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, and he is being groomed by the Communist Party to fill an important political and religious role in Tibet.
Obedient to the party and loyal to the Chinese state, the “Chinese Panchen” is being pushed forward as an alternative to the Dalai Lama, a man widely loved by Tibetans as their supreme religious leader but reviled by the Chinese Communist Party as a “wolf in monk’s clothing” trying to split Tibet from the motherland.
Experts are skeptical about whether ordinary Tibetans will accept this young man’s credentials: His status as the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama — Tibetan Buddhism’s second-most-important living religious figure — is the subject of bitter controversy.
Yet there is no doubt that, with the Dalai Lama now 81, the contest for Tibet is entering a new phase, and decades of Communist Party preparation for the older monk’s eventual demise are gathering pace.
Officially at least, the Panchen Lama will become the most important religious figure in Tibet when the Dalai Lama dies — that is, until the older monk’s reincarnation is found. And he will also play a key role in the Chinese government’s efforts to install a new Dalai Lama who is more amenable to Communist Party rule than the current one.
In July, the young, bespectacled Gyaltsen Norbu, dressed in Tibetan religious finery, presided over an important and rare ritual inside Tibet before a large audience of laypeople, monks and nuns. Since then, he has been busy visiting monasteries, temples, schools and hospitals across the high plateau.
“An increasingly active Panchen Lama is expected to mitigate the Dalai’s influence,” announced the nationalist Global Times tabloid last month, citing speculation that this process was being encouraged to “prepare for a post-Dalai Lama era.”
Chinese state media said that 100,000 people had attended each day of the four-day gathering, called a Kalachakra ceremony, braving rain and cold weather, and quoted monks praising the young man’s “attainments.”
But on a recent visit to Tibet, it was hard to find much enthusiasm for the Chinese Panchen Lama, as many people know him.
Indeed, mention the Panchen Lama to many Tibetans and they start talking about a 6-year-old boy, recognized by the Dalai Lama as the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama in 1995, who immediately disappeared into Chinese custody and was referred to as the world’s youngest political prisoner.
His name is Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and he has not been seen since, but a Tibetan official claimed last year that he was living a normal life and did not want to be disturbed.
In Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, a shop selling photographs of leading Tibetan religious figures contained none of the Chinese Panchen but several of a predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama, who was vilified and imprisoned during China’s Cultural Revolution.
There were also many images of the Karmapa Lama, another important reincarnated lama, who was recognized by China before fleeing to join the Dalai Lama in exile in India in 2000 at age 14 — a decision that embarrassed Beijing but won him credibility among many Tibetans.
One shop worker said there simply wasn’t any demand for images of the Chinese Panchen, while another man dismissed him as a “Chinese Buddhism official.”
Similarly, images of the ninth and 10th Panchen Lamas were easy to find at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site, but images of the Chinese Panchen Lama — the 11th — were not on obvious display.
The Tibetan government-in-exile, representing refugees and based in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, said Tibetans had been forced to attend the Panchen Lama’s Kalachakra, with “severe penalties” for failing to do so.
Sonam Dagpo, the exile administration’s international-relations secretary, called the Kalachakra a “political sham” and said it was ironic that it had been organized by a “self-declared atheist government” during some of the worst repression of religious freedom in Tibet.
But whatever Tibetans think of the Chinese Panchen, he will be thrust into the limelight after the Dalai Lama dies.
The ninth Panchen Lama, for example, was instrumental in the search for the boy who came to be recognized as the 14th and current incarnation of the Dalai Lama in the 1930s. The Dalai Lama in turn played a key role in identifying the 10th Panchen Lama in the 1950s.
The Dalai Lama said that he might decide not to reincarnate at all but that if he does, it would be in a baby born outside China. Beijing almost certainly has other plans.
“Ultimately, China has made the necessary plans to find and choose a Dalai Lama of its own once the present Dalai Lama passes away,” said Elliot Sperling, a professor at Indiana University and an expert on Tibet. “And certainly the Chinese Panchen Lama will play a big role in that process.”
China’s enthronement of both the Karmapa Lama and the Panchen Lama can be seen as dress rehearsals for the eventual nomination of a new Dalai Lama, experts said.
“In the case of the Chinese Panchen Lama, the authorities have found that they can indeed install a lama who is rejected by large segments of the Tibetan population, and maintain him in his position by simple coercion and state power,” Sperling said. “This is significant because they will certainly find little support for a Dalai Lama chosen by the Chinese state.”
Gyaltsen Norbu was born in Tibet in 1990 to parents who were Communist Party members. He has lived in Beijing, reportedly under “protective” guard, since being enthroned in 1995 as the Panchen Lama.
He has always stressed his loyalty to the Chinese state, declaring last year that “the lives of the masses are moving toward wealth and civilization” and that “the Tibetan future is bright like the endless light of the golden sun.”
He has praised the party for liberating Tibet from feudal serfdom when its troops moved into Lhasa in 1951. But he caused a stir when he expressed some concerns in a 2015 speech, complaining that official “quotas” for the number of monks allowed in the Tibetan Autonomous Region were too low and that there was “a danger of Buddhism existing in name only.”
The International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based advocacy group for Tibetan democracy and human rights, said those comments may have reflected concerns relayed to him by senior lamas during his visits to monasteries in Tibet.
Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan historian and scholar at the University of British Columbia, said the fact that the Panchen Lama does not live in his traditional seat in Tibet’s Tashi Lhunpo Monastery shows that monks there still do not accept him.