Page last updated at 16:23 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 17:23 UK

Dalai Lama rival steps into spotlight

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

China's Panchen Lama at the World Buddhist Forum in March 2009
China hopes this monk will act as its public face on Tibetan issues

China has pushed a young bespectacled monk into the spotlight in an effort to show that it governs Tibet with a benign hand.

Officials have launched a vigorous propaganda battle over recent weeks, to demonstrate that Tibetans are thriving under Beijing's direction.

And the man China selected as its Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, has been at the forefront of that campaign.

Although he is only 19, the Panchen Lama has already stepped onto the public stage to praise the Chinese Communist Party.

Tibet expert Professor Robert Barnett, of New York's Columbia University, says this is part of China's efforts to undermine the appeal of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism.

"He will never really replace the Dalai Lama, but his role confuses the picture and can gradually be used to weaken the Dalai Lama's standing," he said.

"I think [China's] Panchen Lama is being built up very gradually as a public spokesman within the Tibetan Buddhist world."

Lavish praise

The Dalai Lama's choice of Panchen Lama - a young boy called Gedhun Choekyi Nyima - was rejected by China, and disappeared soon afterwards.

China's choice, Gyaincain Norbu, has been largely kept from public view since his appointment at the age of five.

But now officials are keen for the world to hear about a young man they depict as a diligent student who loves horse riding and jogging.

The Panchen Lama's Tashilunpo Monastery in Tibet
Panchen Lamas usual live in Shigatse's Tashilunpo Monastery in Tibet

Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on Tuesday that China hoped he would help maintain the country's "territorial integrity".

The Panchen Lama has made three high-profile forays into the spotlight over the last few weeks to coincide with Serfs' Emancipation Day last Saturday.

This is a new holiday introduced by China to mark the day on which the Dalai Lama's rule in Tibet was officially dissolved - a day China celebrates as the start of the liberation of ordinary Tibetans.

The Panchen Lama first visited an exhibition in Beijing showing the economic and social progress China says has taken place in Tibet over the last 50 years.

Today's China enjoys social harmony, stability and religious freedom
China's Panchen Lama

He also penned an article that appeared in the state-controlled People's Daily, one of China's most important news outlets.

In the article he lavished praise on the Communist Party, which he said had brought prosperity to Tibet.

"[We should] uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and contribute more to national unity and the happiness of Tibetan people," he wrote.

And just a few days ago the monk gave a speech at the Second World Buddhist Forum in China's Jiangsu Province.

Although the forum was about religion, the Panchen Lama's speech - delivered in English - had an overtly political message.

"This forum is convened in my country - China," he said, suggesting that he does not support Tibetan independence.

"This event fully demonstrates that today's China enjoys social harmony, stability and religious freedom," he went on.

It was a rebuke to Tibetan exiles, including the Dalai Lama, who insist that China's rule in Tibet over the last 50 years has been repressive.

Great hopes

China has made great play of its Panchen Lama's public appearances.

State-controlled Xinhua news agency published a report on the forum speech under the headline: "Panchen Lama says China enjoys religious freedom."

There was also a hint in the report of just how much China hopes this monk will be able to act as its public face on Tibetan issues.

A picture of China's Panchen Lama when he was a young boy
The Chinese-approved Panchen Lama was selected when he was five

"We disciples of Tibetan Buddhism pin great hopes on him," Xinhua quoted Jalsan, president of the Buddhist Association of Inner Mongolia, as saying.

Previously, little was known about China's Panchen Lama and how he lived his life, which has been spent largely in Beijing.

But on Tuesday Xinhua published an in-depth interview with him, revealing a host of personal details.

The man Xinhua described as "elegant" said he spent most of his time studying Buddhism. But there is time for relaxation.

"About 5% of my time [is] spent on entertainment, such as reading newspapers, books and sports," he told Xinhua.

"I read all kinds of books, but I like historical books most. I also read some fiction and essays in Tibetan and Chinese."

But there was no mention in the article of the other Panchen Lama, chosen by the Dalai Lama in 1995.

Two years ago, an official from the Tibetan Autonomous Region told the BBC that this Panchen Lama was living a quiet life in Lhasa, although many Tibetans say he is a political prisoner.

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