China had until recent months kept its choice out of the glare of the international media, with the youngster spending most of his time in Beijing, studying with his teachers and carefully watched over by the Communist Party. But officials underscored the importance of their nominee to the Party by this year appointing him a member of the country’s top legislative advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The move followed his election as vice president of China’s state-run Buddhist Association.
‘I’ve shouldered the mission of safeguarding national unity and ethnic solidarity since I was enthroned,’ Norbu told the official Xinhua news agency a week after he was declared a delegate to the advisory body. ‘Now, such a sense of responsibility is becoming even stronger.’
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In May, he held a Twitter session with Chinese Internet users in which he discussed Norbu’s selection. According to AFP, he said:
‘As far as I understand, he (the new Panchen Lama) is very intelligent—as far as Buddhist scriptures, he is making a lot of effort…But the people have certain suspicions about him, on whether or not his interpretations of Buddhist scriptures will be effective. This is very important and it will depend on he himself.’
Chinese officials are undoubtedly aware of the uphill struggle they have in winning over sceptical Tibetans, and it was likely such concerns that prompted a visit by Norbu to address a number of prominent Tibetan monasteries, including Tashilhunpo Monastery—traditionally the seat of power of the Panchen Lama.
‘China seeks to legitimize its rule in Tibet by claiming it plays a crucial role in the identification of Tibet’s two most important spiritual leaders,’ says Tenzin, a young Tibetan in exile, on the issue of the Tibet political debut of Beijing’s choice.
Indeed, Tibetans in exile have been particularly vocal in their opposition to China’s Panchen Lama. ‘No matter what China claims and what it does, he (China’s Panchen Lama) isn’t authentic in the eyes of Tibetans. He has no legitimacy,’ says Thupten Samphel, spokesperson for the exile government. ‘This is just another attempt by the Chinese government to diminish His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s image among the Tibetans.’
And there remains the question of the whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, still the choice of Panchen Lama for many exiled Tibetans. China denies he’s in detention, with the recently appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, reportedly telling AP on the sidelines of China’s annual legislative session:
‘As far as I know, his family and he are now living a very good life in Tibet…He and his family are reluctant to be disturbed, they want to live an ordinary life.’
Such assurances are unlikely to satisfy Tibetans any time soon.