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China appoints Panchen Lama in tactical move to quell unrest

March 3, 2010

Young monk will take increasingly political role
in country's highest legal body
By Clifford Coonan in Beijing
The Independent (UK)
March 2, 2010

The red stars and bunting are in place for
China's annual parliament, the National People's
Congress, which starts in Beijing's Great Hall of
the People tomorrow and had been shaping up to be
a rubberstamp talking shop focused mainly on the economy.

However, the event has taken on a broader
political significance since Beijing named the
Panchen Lama, the young man controversially
enthroned by Beijing as the second-highest figure
in Tibetan Buddhism, as a delegate to the
country's top legislative advisory body, the
Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

The publication of a report by a top government
expert critical of Beijing's handling of growing
unrest has also added to the feeling that this
year's NPC might include a surprise or, at least,
indications of growing tensions.

The 20-year-old Panchen Lama, whose name is
Gyaltsen Norbu, has long been earmarked as
Beijing's choice to usurp the Dalai Lama as the
public face of Tibetan Buddhism. He has taken an
increasingly political role and was in the frame
a couple of years ago to be a delegate to the
CPPCC but was thought to be too young. The
Panchen Lama was among 13 people named on Sunday
to the CPPCC, made up of about 2,200 business
leaders, religious figures, academics and
celebrities. The young monk has appeared with
Communist Party leaders, publicly praised Chinese
rule in Tibet, and vowed to contribute to "the
blueprint of the compatible development of Tibetan Buddhism and socialism".

Last month he was voted vice-president of the
nation's Buddhist Association, and the Xinhua
news agency reported how he promised to "uphold
the leadership of the Communist Party of China"
and "adhere to socialism, safeguard national
unification, strengthen ethnic unity and expand Buddhist exchanges".

Comments like these have made the Panchen Lama a
controversial figure, not widely accepted by
Tibetans. Another boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, was
named as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by
the Dalai Lama in 1995. The boy and his family
disappeared soon after and have not been heard
from since, and are believed to be under house arrest in Beijing.

China says that Tibet is, was and always has been
part of its territory for centuries, although
many Tibetans dispute this. Chinese troops
occupied Tibet following the 1949 communist
revolution, sending the Tibetan spiritual leader,
the Dalai Lama, into exile in India in 1959 after
a failed coup against Chinese rule.

The Communist government in Beijing considers the
Dalai Lama to be a dangerous separatist. The
Dalai Lama says he merely seeks greater autonomy.

The NPC comes two years after demonstrations
against Chinese rule across parts of the Tibetan
autonomous region and in neighbouring provinces.
Violent protests in March 2008 in the Tibetan
capital Lhasa against Han Chinese settlers, left
22 dead, according to the government. Tibetan
rights groups say the figure was far higher.
Officials blamed protest activity across the
plateau on separatists loyal to the Dalai Lama.

China has about 100 million Buddhists and around
16,000 temples. Buddhism is seen as less of a
threat than other religions as it is not
centrally organised and has its roots in Chinese culture.

Delegates were arriving at the airport and train
stations for the event, many of them wearing
national dress or military uniform. Nearly three
quarters of the delegates of the NPC, China's
ceremonial legislature, are members of the ruling
Communist Party, with the remainder coming from
the military or other branches of government. All
delegates are approved by the ruling powers.

This year the NPC was expected to be a dry
affair, with the focus on China's economy in the
face of challenges from rising property prices
and inflation. Proposals are usually greeted by
lengthy applause and normally receive unanimous
approval. While there have been one or two
surprises, any deviations from the Party line happen behind closed doors.

However, on this occasion the NPC could throw up
some surprises. China-watchers have been closely
reading the text of a recent speech by Dr Yu
Jianrong, China's top expert on social unrest,
which appears to warn that hardline security
policies are taking the country to the brink of
"fundamental revolutionary turmoil" because the
Communist Party's was obsessed with holding on to its power monopoly.

The security forces will also carry out their
annual crackdown on all forms of dissent, with
particular attention being paid to the
petitioners who come to the capital to air their
grievances. Fearful of unrest, for a number of
years anyone with a petition for the government
has been kept far from Tiananmen Square, where the NPC takes place.

"The NPC is a big public show," said Cheng Li, a
China-watcher at the Brookings Institution, the Washington think-tank.

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