Exercising the ultimate political control, the Chinese Communist Party manufactured a 'holy' ceremony to appoint its own living god, writes John Garnaut from Shigatse in Tibet.
Photo of Gendhun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognised by the Dalai Lama and revered by Tibetans as the 11th Panchen Lama, taken in 1995, when he was six years old, remains the only proving clue available of him outside China. (Photo: Phayul/file)
Monks from the Panchen Lama's Tashilumpo monastery looked into the waters of Lhamo Latso lake and saw the upper half of a horse, the lower half of a goat and the Tibetan syllable ''grwa''.
Those and other signs led them to a nomadic area called Lhari, and in it a young boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. He bore birthmarks on his back similar to the symbols seen in the waters of the lake. He was born in the year of the horse. And he could instinctively point the way to Tashilumpo monastery.
Months of secret communications ensued between the abbot of Tashilumpo monastery, Chadrel Rinpoche - who was the government-endorsed leader of the six-year search - and the Dalai Lama, who lived in exile over the Himalayas in Dharamsala.
The Dalai Lama selected a ball of barley dough from a bowl and it had the boy's name inside it. On May 14, 1995, he told the world that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was indeed the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.
In the 1980s a reformist Chinese leadership team had returned to the relatively liberal and culturally sensitive Tibet policies that had been in place in the 1950s, including trying to win over the Dalai Lama.
But by the early 1990s China had lurched hard again to the conservative political left. In 1992 a capable but hardline party chief called Chen Kuiyuan was appointed to run Tibet. The Dalai Lama turned from potential partner to implacable enemy.
The Communist Party resolved to do whatever it took to ensure that it would appoint, train and control the lamas who they saw as the key to political control of Tibetans. It proclaimed that the Dalai Lama-endorsed Panchen Lama was "illegal" and Xinhua news agency denounced the six-year-old boy for having "once drowned a dog".
For most Chinese citizens, the Communist Party offers broad religious freedom, a process of law and at least an effort to win their hearts and minds. But it is different inside the frontier regions of western China.
Chadrel Rinpoche and about 30 of his colleagues involved in the Panchen Lama search simply disappeared. So, too, did the six-year-old boy, together with his family, without any hint of legal process.
The monks were secretly sentenced to prison terms that purportedly ended in 2002. But nothing has been seen since of Chadrel Rinpoche, his secretary, the Panchen Lama boy or any of his family.
"The young Tibetan person … is studying and living in quite good condition," said Hao Peng, who is simultaneously deputy head of the Communist Party and executive vice-chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, in answer to a question from the Herald on a government-organised foreign media tour this week.
"He and his family members do not want to be disturbed so we have to respect their wishes and we cannot arrange a visit."
Chadrel Rinpoche's condition was "very good" but it was "not clear" whether we could confirm this for ourselves. After 15 years of political and religious battles inside Tibet's candle-lit monasteries - and more recently on its open streets - Beijing is demonstrating a new confidence that is has the upper hand. The incarceration of the indigenously selected Panchen Lama gave it the time it needed to create a new one of its own.
''The basic theory is based on a much earlier imperial tradition that you can't rule a place where people are so different unless you have a local proxy ruler who can say, 'I invited the Chinese and we are all very happy,' " said Robbie Barnett, of the University of Columbia, who spent six years at Tibet University until 2006.
"The system works with an incredibly complicated system of incentives and intimidation," he said. "They are just so good at it."
Usually the Communist Party's strategies of incentive and intimidation can be seen only in their effect. The backstage process of manufacturing consent for a state-imposed 11th Panchen Lama, however, is laid out in cold and brutal detail in a series of internal reports.
Remarkably, given how China jealously guards its state secrets, these reports were published in a compilation by the Tibet party boss, Chen Kuiyuan. Those documents have been recently translated and examined by Barnett, but never previously reported.
They show that in 1994 Chen sought and apparently received Beijing's permission to ignore the Dalai Lama, sideline Chadrel Rinpoche - but not yet destroy him - and impose his own interpretation of a rarely used Qing Dynasty ritual to appoint a centrally approved Panchen Lama.
"We stated explicitly again that the monastery should report three candidates for the soul children, and that it will then be decided by the drawing of lots from a golden urn," Chen wrote in an April 3, 1994, report on dealings with Tashilumpo monastery leaders. "The decision is no longer subject to discussion and will never be changed," said the report, addressed to the central United Front Department, a secretive party institution with responsibility for dividing and conquering potential rivals.
The public, however, was told that the Golden Urn ritual was not decided for another 18 months - at a November 1995 meeting of Tibetan dignitaries in Beijing.
The 1994 papers show Chen requesting that Chadrel Rinpoche be "kept" in Beijing for up to 15 days as Chen's team worked more pliable leaders of the monastery.
On April 11, Chen reported that it was still premature to impose his Golden Urn solution - "at present, we do not need to force all members of the Tashilumpo monastery democratic management committee to reach a consensus" - while his team stepped up "ideological education".
Chadrel Rinpoche was to be given room but only "up to so far as he does not bring ruin upon himself".
If Chadrel Rinpoche did not relent, "we should mobilise the healthy forces within the monastery to have a showdown in the committee and reach a consensus with pressure".
By the following year Chen Kuiyuan's preparation of the "united front" was complete. He arrested the spiritual recalcitrants, withstood a monks' rebellion and carried out a massive and brutal purge of the monastery.
Before dawn on November 29 that year, as snipers patrolled the roof of Lhasa's ancient and famous Jokhang Temple, a senior and politically reliable monk carefully plucked a tally stick protruding out of a golden urn. Television observers noticed that the winning stick was longer than the others and a monk involved in the process later said that it was rigged.
Three senior Chinese politicians, including the future national security chief Luo Gan, were filmed witnessing the ritual with their shoes on and with their backs to a statue of a Buddha - indicating awkward unfamiliarity with the ceremonial sensitivities of Tibetan Buddhism.
Chen Kuiyuan, the former Tibet Party boss, penned a poem to mark his earthly creation of a living god.The child reincarnation was decided and the Buddha met the world. The lamp of the Great Dharma was handed down to shine on this disastrous world.
Gyaltsen Norbu, installed as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Chinese Communist Party, is handed rice. (Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald)
The name written on the longest stick in the Golden Urn - chosen in part for his "outstanding … image and intelligence", wrote Chen - was the four-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu. This year, after 15 years of secret and intensive training, the young man is being publicly given a trial as Tibet's second most important religious leader.
In March the official 11th Panchen Lama was appointed to be the youngest ever member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body. "I have learnt a lot from this experience," he told Xinhua."I have seen other members expressing their opinions, discussing state affairs together, and better serving the party and the state."
He has since featured on the cover of Global Personality magazine, gave his first political speech (although the contents remain secret), toured quake-struck areas in Qinghai on the Tibetan plateau and made his first visit to his home monastery, Tashilumpo. The Communist Party's success in creating an 11th Panchen Lama has built confidence for even greater ambitions.
The ageing Dalai Lama has hinted that he may choose his own reincarnation, perhaps among the exile community in India. But this week the Communist Party revealed exactly how it planned to ensure that never happens.
"The reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama have to follow strict rules, there has to be a drawing of lots from the golden urn, and they have to be approved by the central government," the deputy party boss of Tibet, Hao Peng, said.
He said this new quasi-historical, pseudo-religious Communist Party ritual will be enforced "not only today but in the future".
The 1994 internal reports of Chen Kuiyuan show him offering to open the vaults of the state to the Tashilumpo monks who would co-operate, as well as promising to "ruin" those who did not.
Patriotic monks would be recognised "for their contribution to religion and to the country'', Chen said. "The monastery would gain more trust and more assistance from the party and the country."
Tashilumpo monastery is in Shigatse, along a river that rages east past Lhasa before tumbling south off the Tibetan plateau to become the Bramaputra. Its 300,000 square metres of ancient buildings are impressively renovated. The face of a 30-metre-high Buddha, the stupa of the entombed 10th Panchen Lama and ornate turrets on the roof tops are all sparkling with fresh gold.
Doup Chung, a veteran of 20 years at the monastery and one of three monks selected to meet us, claimed no knowledge of and showed little interest in the extra-legal incarceration of his former spiritual and organisational leader, Chadrel Rinpoche, or the other 11th Panchen Lama, who is due to celebrate his 21st birthday under house arrest this year.
The new director of the Tashilumpo monastery democratic management committee, Nian Zha, enthusiastically denounced the Panchen Lama who his monastery leaders had once endorsed. "It was not approved by the central government; we do not recognise him as the Panchen Lama," he said.
He endorsed the official 11th Panchen Lama and revealed he was preparing to move into Tashilumpo monastery and claim it at his winter home.
"The 11th Panchen Lama was … approved by the central government and it followed the rituals of the lot drawing from the golden urn," he said. "So all the believers here respect and worship him."
It is impossible to tell to what extent the monks and broader Buddhist community of Shigatse have accepted the imposed Panchen Lama, whose picture is now hanging on the gold stupa of his predecessor.
Our movements at Tashilumpo were tightly corralled. The atmosphere in Shigatse was far more relaxed than in Lhasa - no visible armed police, Tibetans not scared to engage in casual conversation - but our path was closely followed by men in mirror sunglasses.
The temple director, Nian Zha, listed the dividends that have flowed from earning the trust of the party and the country - millions in central government funding for restoration since 2008 - while others listed huge grants of money and assorted treasures in earlier years.
"Although it is an atheist party … you can see they invested a lot of money to renovate the monasteries and to improve the life of the monks here," Nian Zha said. "So you can see in the whole world there's no better policy than the policy of the Communist Party of China in protecting our religion."