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Panchen Politics: Can Beijing win Tibetan hearts?

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"Everything we do, we do to ensure that the people live a happier life with more dignity and to make our society fairer and more harmonious."

-- Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in his annual speech on March 4 at the opening of National People's Congress in Beijing.

A few days before, Wen's government had appointed the 20-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu, the Beijing-anointed Panchen Lama, as one of the 13 new members of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the top advisory body to China's parliament. After becoming a CPPCC member, Norbu expressed a higher responsibility in his "mission of safeguarding national unity and ethnic solidarity"[Xinhua, March 5]. Norbu's ascendance to CPPCC membership although viewed by some analysts as his coming-out-party on the much-politicized ethnic scene in the PRC, it is also a routine move symbolizing the "preferential treatment" of Tibetan minorities in the policy-making process of the one party state. Since 1950s, China has attempted to cultivate a support base of highly influential Tibetan spiritual leaders who are "loyal and patriotic" to the party.

In yet another move to raise the profile of Norbu, Beijing hosted in 2006 the first World Buddhist Forum where Norbu was one of the key speakers at the opening ceremony. Notwithstanding the dissonance of an atheist regime hosting a religious event, state media quoted Norbu as saying that Buddhism's responsibility was "to foster patriotism and national unity". On his second rare visit in 1999 to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas in Shigatse in Tibet Autonomous region (TAR), Xinhua reported that the then 9-year-old Norbu while performing a religious ceremony had "urged Tibetan Buddhists to obey the instructions of President Jiang Zemin and love the socialist Chinese motherland".

For the past 14 years, Beijing has kept Norbu under strict watch; his movements restricted to areas in and around Beijing. As an 11-year-old, Norbu also visited Shanghai and Zhejiang provinces surrounded as always by a heavy posse of security guards and officials. He is often shown on state televisions meeting Chinese leaders and leading religious ceremonies. His education is confined to Beijing where a special school for grooming "living Buddhas" (Beijing's term for reincarnated religious leaders) called the China Advanced Institute of Tibetan Buddhism trains reincarnated Tibetan spiritual leaders.

In 2000, People's Daily reported the successful "education" of over 50 "living Buddhas" since 1978 in Beijing. In recent times, Beijing's subtle sophisticated style of repression has seen a similar "living Buddha" school being built in Lhasa's Chushul (Ch: Quishu) county. Last year, China's state television CCTV beamed footages of Gyaltsen Norbu touring the school's construction site.

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Tsering Tsomo is a Tibetan journalist based in New Delhi, India. She writes for exile Tibetan publications and other online media.
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