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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Forces Soul Boy On Wary Tibet

SHIGATSE, Tibet -- Both boys are too young to shave or even to count their age beyond the fingers of two hands. Both live in the Chinese capital surrounded by police who supervise their every move.

But only one is His Holiness the 11th Panchen Lama, the second-most revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism, who by tradition reigns in this gritty but sacred city in the highlands of south-central Tibet.

The officially approved 11th Panchen Lama is 9-year-old Erdeni Chosgyi Gyalpo, a descendant of nomadic Tibetan herders who has spent the last four years in Beijing studying classic Buddhist texts and scriptures.

To a wizened Tibetan street vendor named Gyashi, however, the boy is something else. "He's a fake,'' the vendor said with a dismissive snort and wave of the hand.

Instead, for Gyashi and many others, the genuine article is 10-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who, like his younger rival, reportedly also lives in Beijing f but under house arrest. The 10-year-old, along with the rest of his family, has lived the life of a virtual prisoner ever since the exiled Dalai Lama infuriated China's leaders by naming him as the reincarnated Panchen Lama without their consent in May 1995.

Tensions between religious Tibetans and China's atheistic regime have grown in the last week and a half as the government's Panchen Lama journeyed amid tight security to Tibet. On Monday, the boy appeared in public briefly at a religious festival in Shigatse, Tibet's second-largest city, before being whisked away, as had happened on the festival's opening day 24 hours earlier.

Already at odds with the man at the top of the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, the Beijing regime denounced the Dalai Lama's choice as politically motivated and accused him of flouting established religious rites. Six months later it replaced the Dalai Lama's choice with its own candidate following a government-overseen lottery ritual.

The succession flap underscores how sensitive the Communist regime is to the continuing influence in Tibet of the Dalai Lama, whom China regards as a "splittist'' bent on breaking up the country.

Chinese Communist troops moved into Tibet nearly five decades ago. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for exile in India after an unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. China considers Tibet an "autonomous region'' within the People's Republic, akin to other Chinese provinces.

The Dalai Lama has said he is willing for Tibet to be a broadly autonomous part of China. The United Nations acknowledges Chinese control over Tibet. Beijing links Tibetan Buddhism to nationalist and separatist activity, and fears that the figure of the Panchen Lama f who practitioners believe is a living god f could become yet another major flash point in the struggle over religious expression and Chinese rule.

Aware of widespread opposition to its choice, the government has put the boy under heavy armed guard for his trip to Tibet, which began in Lhasa a week and a half ago.

About two dozen sharpshooters lined the roof of the Jokhang temple, Lhasa's holiest site, when the boy visited in early morning darkness June 19, witnesses said. During his 90-minute visit, he received scarves in tribute from the temple's monks, some of whom said that the government had ordered them to present the offerings.

"If he were the real reincarnation, the government wouldn't have to be so severe,'' said one young monk, his wiry frame hidden beneath the loose folds of his crimson robe. "But the fact that they were shows that they have their own demons about it.''

At the hillside Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse, an imposing compound which has served as the seat of the Panchen Lama for more than 300 years, men in monks' robes patrolled the grounds with walky-talkies Monday morning before the boy arrived to kick off the second day of one of Shigatse's most important religious events, the annual "Kuiku'' festival.

He came just before 8 a.m., somewhere in a 21-vehicle police motorcade that swept past a group of foreign reporters in the lamasery's outermost courtyard f the closest that foreign journalists have gotten to the child since his appointment four years ago.

Portraits of the much-beloved 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989, abound in shops and other public buildings around Shigatse f but few of his Beijing-appointed heir hang beside them.

State media have dubbed the new Panchen Lama "soul boy'' and raved over his command of Buddhist scriptures, "convincing his followers that he is the true reincarnation of the last Panchen Lama,'' the New China News Agency reported last week.