A 20-Year-Old Woman Gives Beijing Reason to Worry
By Jonathan Mirsky
The identity of the next Dalai Lama -- and by extension the legitimacy of Chinese rule over Tibet -- may depend on a 20-year-old Tibetan-Chinese woman. Nothing makes China more internationally unpopular than its occupation of Tibet, and none of Beijing's enemies are as universally admired as the Dalai Lama. But as the Chinese are quick to point out, no government denies China's right to administer Tibet, and all capitals, under pressure from China, receive the Dalai Lama not as a political leader, but as a religious figure. Beijing, in short, seems to hold all the high cards when it comes to Tibet. But there is one wild card that may still slip from Beijing's hand.
This is the virtually unknown Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmu, known as Rinzin -- a pretty third-year student at American University in Washington D.C, who has been educated in the United States for almost 10 years. Last week she was in Oxford for a scholarly conference on Tibet.
Rinzin is important for Beijing because her father was the tenth Panchen Lama, who died in 1989. Her mother is Chinese. Panchen Lamas are second only to Dalai Lamas in the eyes of Tibetans, who regard them as divine beings. When a Dalai Lama dies, the Panchen identifies his incarnation. Rinzin's approval of her father's successor is vital to Tibetans accepting Chinese rule. Beijing, therefore, knowing of her rapturous receptions in the Autonomous Region, treats her with unique deference. She encourages this by explaining that in her person, Tibet and China are tuanjie, linked.
After the Dalai Lama fled into Indian exile in 1959, the tenth Panchen became the highest-ranking religious figure inside Tibet, with his traditional monastery, the Tashilhumpo, at Shigatse, a day's drive from Lhasa. But he was forced to live in Beijing where he appeared an abject semi-prisoner of the Chinese who occasionally visited Tibet. But in 1962 the Panchen wrote a confidential 70,000-character petition to China's leaders.
He charged that while some worthwhile reforms had occurred since the Chinese invasion of 1949-50, the disaster was "the elimination of Buddhism . . . which transmitted teachings and enlightenment. This is something which I and more than 90% of Tibetans cannot endure."
In addition, he wrote, China's economic policies had caused a famine so severe that the Tibetan population was "sinking into a state close to death." The petition remained secret for 34 years but the Panchen was immediately accused of "reactionary arrogance."
In 1964, the Panchen made a dangerously public move. At a religious festival in Lhasa he departed from his approved text to insist, before thousands of Tibetans, that the Dalai Lama, denounced as a "criminal splittist" by Beijing, would return to his Golden Throne in Lhasa, adding " Long live his Holiness." He was soon put under house arrest. In 1966 he was manhandled and tortured by Red Guards; his ordeal is recorded in photographs. Released in 1977 when he was 39, the Panchen married Li Jie, the beautiful granddaughter of one of Chiang Kai-shek's generals. One of the few foreigners who has met Li Jie, the journalist Isabel Hilton, describes her as a woman living in grandeur in Beijing where she insists on deference from those around her. Li Jie claims she may be descended from the seventh century Tang Princess Wen-Ch'eng, married off by the emperor to a Tibetan king who was menacing China's borders. There are Tibetans and some Chinese who call Li Jie "Princess Wen-Ch'eng."
Once he was married, the Panchen became rich from various business ventures and some property returned to him from the Tashilhumpo. On his trips to Tibet he called for economic and educational reforms, and the Dalai Lama spoke of him as a force for good. When he suddenly died on a visit to the Tashilhumpo in 1989, it was widely believed by Tibetans that the Panchen had been poisoned by the Chinese who feared his outspokenness. To counter such allegations, Tibet's Party Secretary Hu Jintao, now China's new president, declared during his eulogy to the Panchen that Deng Xiaoping regarded the dead lama as "the most outstanding patriot of our country."
Now began one of the most bitter struggles for succession in the history of Tibet: who would identify the next Panchen? Would it be the exiled Dalai Lama -- or China?
In 1995 the Dalai Lama, on the secret advice of the abbot of the Tashilhumpo, designated the six-year-old Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the eleventh Panchen. An enraged Beijing immediately kidnapped the boy, his parents, and the abbot who had contacted the Dalai Lama. The boy was dismissed as a "dog-drowner," and when asked for his whereabouts the official spokesmen replied that either they did not know the address of every Chinese citizen or "he is where he is supposed to be." In language paradoxical for a Communist regime, Beijing condemned the Dalai Lama for "crimes of undermining the work related to the reincarnation of the Panchen."
In November of 1995, at an elaborate faux-Buddhist ceremony, the Chinese installed their own 11th Panchen, Gyaltsen Norbu, the son of two Party members who according to Party rules are forbidden to observe any religion. In an audience with then-President Jiang Zemin the boy was urged to "uphold the leadership of the Party."
China's "chosen one" lives in Beijing and on his occasional visits to Shigatse is largely ignored. Insulting graffiti about him are scrawled on walls. This has alarming implications for Beijing. When the present, 14th Dalai Lama, who is approaching 70 years old, dies, by tradition his incarnation should be designated by the Panchen. But if the Panchen is regarded as illegitimate and unworthy by Tibetans, his choice of a Dalai Lama, who Tibetans normally regard as their religious and civil leader, will be ignored and scorned.
The Dalai Lama has told me that he regards the kidnapping of the authentic Panchen Lama in 1995 as a dress rehearsal for what happens after he dies. Although the Chinese will certainly "discover" a Panchen, he said, "I have made it clear that the next Dalai Lama will be born in a free country. I think the Tibetans will accept that -- and they won't accept a boy chosen by the Chinese."
Unless -- and this is the unexpected element -- Rinzin, daughter of the tenth Panchen, recognizes little Gyaltsen Norbu as the genuine incarnation. On her recent trips to Tibet, she told me recently in London, she was mobbed day after day by vast throngs, around 10,000 people a day, hailing her "out of love and dedication to my father."
She met the official 11th Panchen at a carefully arranged ceremony. It was intended that she should prostrate herself before him to demonstrate to witnesses and cameras that she regarded him as her father's incarnation. She declined and explains tactfully, "I just said hello. My father never made me prostrate myself to him, so I felt I didn't need to do so before this boy." Does she think he is the 11th Panchen? "I need more time to think." What about the Dalai Lama's choice? "I've never met him, so I can't say."
Rinzin says she wants to be useful, especially to Tibetans. "I need to study more. I dream of going to Harvard for graduate school. After that I could live in Beijing, Washington, London. I don't know." Tsering Shakya, a leading historian of Tibet, tells me, "Rinzin is a natural leader with grassroots support in Tibet; she is finding out how to act."
In her guileless way, Rinzin asks me, "Where do you think I should live?" When I suggest Tibet is where she could be most useful, she nods and says nothing. Rinzin, the child of a dead supreme incarnation, asks questions that would baffle the most sophisticated Buddhist theologian: "What do you think is my relationship to the boy in Beijing? Shouldn't he respect me because of my father?" Her questions will undoubtedly cause deep anxiety in Beijing.
Mr. Mirsky is a former East Asia editor for the Times of London.
The Asian Wall Street Journal