Hu Jintao meeting with Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu

Chinese President Hu Jintao meeting with Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, the Panchen Lama chosen by the Chinese leadership.

The meeting of China’s Party Secretary and President Hu Jintao with Gyaltsen Norbu, the boy chosen by Beijing as the 11th Panchen Lama at the Great Hall of the People yesterday (3 February), indicates the high political priority accorded to ensuring acceptance of the boy as the valid incarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. Most Tibetans do not accept the boy as the legitimate Panchen Lama, reserving their loyalty for the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who was taken into Chinese custody in 1995.

President Hu used the opportunity of the meeting to make a rare statement affirming the particular attention he pays to the Tibet issue and his personal connection to the 10th Panchen Lama, who was highly respected among Tibetans for his support for the Tibetan religious culture and language. Hu was reported as saying to Gyaltsen Norbu: “I have had quite a number of contacts with the 10th Panchen Lama. I was even with the 10th Panchen Lama when he passed away. By telling you this, I hope you will follow the example of His Holiness to be another model of loving the country and religion.”

The meeting with Hu, representing an intensification of China’s ongoing campaign to enforce the teenager’s legitimacy as a religious and patriotic figure, follows a meeting held in Qinghai province last November to urge senior Tibetan religious leaders to show more support for the official Panchen. The Buddhist leaders were threatened with unspecified punishments if they failed to comply with this ruling, and were told that the authorities were displeased with the lack of cooperation shown by Tibetan people during the visit of Gyaltsen Norbu to the area in 2003. (Reuters, 24 January and Associated Press, 23 January).

According to a report published by Xinhua yesterday (3 February), the former Tibet Autonomous Region Party Secretary Hu asked Gyaltsen Norbu about his progress on religious and academic studies and encouraged him to learn from his predecessor, the 10th Panchen Lama, in order to be “a Living Buddha with full love to the country and his religion”.

The 10th Panchen Lama died at Tashilhunpo monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lamas in Shigatse, at the age of 50 on 28 January 1989, five days after Hu Jintao, the then Party Secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region, had arrived for a visit to the monastery. The 10th Panchen Lama is most well-known for his “70,000-character petition” submitted to Mao Zedong in 1962, a strongly-worded and critical analysis of Chinese policies and practices in Tibet, particularly during the years 1959-61. Mao reacted strongly against the petition and the 10th Panchen Lama spent the following 14 years in prison or under house arrest. A decade later, he made a further scathing criticism of Party policies, and in 1989 at Shigatse, he even called for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to cooperate with him on Party policy. He died suddenly, reportedly of a heart attack, days after his speech. Despite the strongly critical nature of his speeches, today the 10th Panchen Lama is described as a “patriot” by the Party.

For Tibetans themselves, maintaining loyalty to Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognised by the Dalai Lama in May 1995 as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, is often a way to express their loyalty for the Dalai Lama. In Tibet, Gyaltsen Norbu is frequently referred to as “Panchen Zuma” – literally “fake Panchen”.

Sometimes Tibetans will indicate their real loyalties by displaying a very small picture of Gyaltsen Norbu alongside a large framed portrait of the 10th Panchen Lama. Possession of pictures of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama and who is held in custody at an unknown location by the Chinese authorities, is treated as a threat to China’s unity and national security in Tibet.

The Chinese media began to promote Gyaltsen Norbu as a patriotic religious leader in the late 1990s, after a long period of silence in the official press about the boy, beginning with coverage of his visit to the Panchen Lama’s official seat, Tashilhunpo in Shigatse, and Lhasa, surrounded by intense security, in June 1999.

Although the Xinhua news article on the meeting between Hu and Gyaltsen Norbu describes the boy as being “mainly reclusive”, he has made a number of high-profile appearances in Tibetan areas and in Beijing in recent years. During his visit to Qinghai Province, northwest China, the traditional Tibetan area of Amdo, in August 2003, he met the 10th Panchen Lama’s mother, Sonam Drolma in Haidong prefecture. A by-lined article describing his visit published in Chinese by Xinhua on 13 August 2003 – which was withdrawn by the official news agency five hours after being circulated for reasons that are not stated – reported that they had “cordial talks” and that he “posed for photographs with the family. During the visit, the People’s Daily reported that at a farewell party, the boy said he wished for the people of Qinghai to enjoy stable lives, a prosperous economy and unity among the different ethnic minorities and for them to advance on the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics under the leadership of the Communist Party of China” (People’s Daily, 13 August 2003). The statement was in keeping with the authorities’ aim to use religious leaders, whether selected officially or not, for Party political purposes.