Cultural Genocide and the 11th Panchen Lama

Panchen Lama

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama.

April 25, 2013, is the 24th birthday of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, taken into Chinese custody on May 17, 1995 at age six. He has not been seen in public since. (Video, “Tibet’s Stolen Child“)

On this date last year, the International Campaign for Tibet released its report, “60 Years of Chinese Misrule: The Case for Cultural Genocide in Tibet.” The report finds in part that Chinese policies and practices of cultural repression and destruction are so systematic and persistent in Tibet, and their effects are so serious, that they contain elements of cultural genocide. The intense control of Tibetan Buddhism – including the manipulation by the Chinese authorities of religious figures, as personified by the Panchen Lama’s experience – is an area where cultural repression has been most visible and intensely felt by Tibetans.

The historic role of the 10th Panchen Lama as an authentic representative of the Tibetan people and Tibetan Buddhist culture during the early years of the Communist occupation clearly inspired the Chinese party-state’s design to undermine the Dalai Lama’s authority in naming his reincarnation and then to manage and control its own replacement.


[Excerpt] One of the most important records of events in Tibet during the imposition of ‘democratic reforms’ and the Great Leap Forward comes from the 10th Panchen Lama. In 1962, the Panchen Lama was an avowed supporter of the Chinese state and its ideology who had spent the previous 13-years loyally working with the Communist authorities as part of their United Front. By the end of the Great Leap Forward in 1961, however, he had become so concerned over the situation in Tibet that he sent a “70,000 Character Petition” to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai detailing the devastating impact that the combination of ‘democratic reforms,’ repression and famine was having across the Tibetan plateau, with a particular focus on the behavior and attitudes of CCP cadres toward Tibetans. The petition was a secret document intended only for the eyes of the Communist Party’s top leadership, and it began with typical paeans to Zhou. When the 10th Panchen Lama addressed the problems arising in Tibet, his critique was devastating: “the democratic campaign, which was carried out in conjunction with suppression of the rebellion, was a large-scale, fierce, acute and life-and-death class struggle, which overturned heaven and earth.” He criticized the implementation of reforms, accusing cadres of painting large numbers of Tibetans as counterrevolutionary or ‘black’ and of acting out of a “fierce hatred” toward Tibetans.

On the state of Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama was particularly critical. He wrote, “In the whole of Tibet in the past there was a total of about 110,000 monks and nuns. Of those, possibly 10,000 fled abroad [following the Dalai Lama], leaving about 100,000. After the democratic reform was concluded, the number of monks and nuns living in the monasteries was about 7,000 people, which is a reduction of 93 percent.” He continued, “Due to this, the sweet dew of ‘teaching, debating and writing’ and ‘listening, thinking and contemplating’ has dried out.” The Panchen Lama also reported to Zhou that “Of the 2,500 monasteries which had once existed [in what is now the TAR] only 70 were left,” and 98-99 percent of the estimated 1,900 monasteries in Kham and Amdo were also destroyed.

He asserted that the first task of reform appeared to be to attack religion in the name of “eliminating superstition.” He was alarmed by the Democratic Management Committees that were set up in monasteries, and whose members “had illicit relations, went with prostitutes, drank excessively and took other such unscrupulous actions…regarded ignoring their vows as nothing, and publicly and unscrupulously engaged in liaisons with women within the monasteries, kept their hair long, changed their clothes…and encouraged the masses of the monks also to do so.” As a result of this louche atmosphere, and the fact that monks were spending so much time performing mundane labor, “religious activities were as scarce as stars in the daytime,” he wrote, adding that the situation was tantamount to “the elimination of Buddhism [in Tibet]…This is something that I and more than 90 percent of Tibetans cannot endure.”

He condemned those who destroyed religious buildings and materials as having “usurped the name of the masses and put on the face [mask or mianju] of the masses” and the attempts to portray such destruction as resulting from Tibetans’ raised socialist consciousness to be “sheer nonsense which comes from a complete lack of understanding of the actual situation in Tibet.”

On the subject of the famine that had swept Tibet, the Panchen Lama was equally scathing. Although he was careful to blame incorrect local implementation of policies amid the suppression of the rebellion for the disastrous impact of the Great Leap Forward, his description of the damage resonates with frustration. He noted that “for a period, because the life of the masses was poverty-stricken and miserable, many people, principally the young and old, died of starvation or because they were physically so weak that they could not resist minor illnesses. Consequently, there has been an evident and severe reduction in the present-day Tibetan population.” The passages on famine movingly recount how he learned of the deprivation and death that was taking place across Tibet by talking to local representatives in Qinghai, commenting at one point that “it is barely possible to describe the lives of the masses of the agricultural and animal breeding peoples…[T]his really should not have happened.” He reserved his harshest criticism for the local cadres he believed were at the root of the problem because of their lack of understanding of and regard for local knowledge, conditions and people. After expressing concern about those arrested and their loved ones left behind to meet extreme production quotas, he noted that “methods of reform were not based on the wishes, demand and level of consciousness of the majority of the remaining masses of the people…there was no careful consideration of whether or not the conditions were ripe [for collectivization]…the majority of things which should have belonged to the individual were put into the category of things belonging to the collective…” In summary, he declared, “many people thought that the Tibetan nationality was being viciously attacked” due to the authorities’ means of suppressing the rebellion, particularly the attacks on Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan nationality “which Tibetans love as their own lives.”

While Zhou Enlai initially appeared to welcome the Panchen Lama’s testimony about the true situation in Tibet, Mao and others around him were infuriated by it. Mao, who had been temporarily sidelined after the failures of the Great Leap Forward, had regained control of the Party and immediately went after the Panchen Lama. In August 1964, Mao launched a new campaign called the “Socialist Education Movement,” under which the Panchen Lama was denounced as a traitor to socialism, removed from his official positions and subjected to seventeen days of struggle sessions. During these struggle sessions, he was accused of absurd crimes: ‘attempted restoration of serfdom,’ murder, planning to launch a guerrilla war against the state, cohabitating with women, criticizing and opposing China “in a 70,000 character document,” supporting the Dalai Lama and misleading the masses, and theft of valuables from monasteries. He was subsequently taken to Beijing and placed under house arrest, where he remained until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.


The question of Chinese legitimacy in Tibet continued to serve as a meta-narrative for Chinese cultural repression long after the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989. Again, as excerpted from the ICT report:


[Excerpt] After the 10th Panchen Lama’s death in 1989, CCP authorities had immediately grasped the importance of controlling the search, selection and recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama. They announced a seven-point plan for the process, elements of which were consistent with traditional Tibetan practices, but importantly they insisted that the selection would be made by means of the ‘golden urn’ lottery and subject to final state approval. The PRC government began to propagandize that the selection of the Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama reincarnates had always been the prerogative of prior imperial Chinese governments and would be so now. Soon after the 10th Panchen Lama’s funeral, Chinese Premier Li Peng announced that outsiders would not be permitted to ‘meddle in the selection procedure.’

The monks of Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lamas, were placed in an untenable position. In the case of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, there was historically a pattern of mutual recognition of their reincarnations and subsequent religious educations – the so-called ‘sun and moon’ relationship. The Dalai Lama made clear his view that it was his sole prerogative to recognize the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation and that this was a spiritual matter beyond the reach of the PRC government. The abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery and head of its DMC, Chadrel Rinpoche, was placed in charge of the search committee. The monks of Tashilhunpo had publicly demanded that the Dalai Lama be the final arbiter regarding the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation and knew his approval was essential for the Tibetan people to accept the legitimacy of the selection, but they were in a weak position to resist Beijing’s will.

Chadrel Rinpoche tried to bridge the unbridgeable: his religious responsibility to honor the Dalai Lama’s role in the selection process, and his political constraints as Chinese authorities became increasingly hostile to the Dalai Lama. He used every tool at his disposal to get the Chinese to relent on the issue of the Dalai Lama’s role in the process. At one point, he even threatened to quit and disband his team if they insisted that the Dalai Lama could not be consulted. While they did not assent, the Chinese did seem to back off on their insistence that the Dalai Lama have no role. In the end, however, except for one brief meeting between the Dalai Lama’s brother Gyalo Thondup and Chadrel Rinpoche, the Chinese authorities refused all entreaties from the Dalai Lama and ultimately insisted he had no role in the process. Nonetheless, Chadrel Rinpoche managed to send surreptitious updates on the search to the Dalai Lama and receive instructions from him. As the process narrowed throughout 1994 and settled on a single boy, Chinese-Tibetan relations deteriorated further. The 1994 Work Forum signaled that Beijing had decided that extermination of the Dalai Lama’s influence in Tibet was in its best interests.

Chadrel Rinpoche’s last message to the Dalai Lama arrived in January 1995 and contained information about the various candidates, as well as the evidence the Rinpoche saw as pointing toward one candidate in particular: a six-year-old boy from the remote area of Nagchu in central Tibet, Gedun Choekyi Nyima. After he reviewed the materials and performed the necessary rituals, the Dalai Lama recognized Gedun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama. He sent a secret message to Chadrel Rinpoche, who received it but was unable to respond. Chadrel Rinpoche was fighting a losing battle with the Chinese authorities and their loyalists on the search committee to avoid the lottery and confirm Gedun Choekyi Nyima. After several months of fruitless effort to communicate with Chadrel Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama announced on May 14, 1995, that the eleventh reincarnation of the Panchen Lama had been found.

Within three days, Chadrel Rinpoche disappeared along with around 30 colleagues involved in the reincarnation search. They were subjected to beatings and other torture during interrogation, and Chadrel Rinpoche was later sentenced to six years imprisonment for ‘leaking state secrets’ and ‘splitting the country.’ Tashilhunpo Monastery was placed under lockdown after the monks there broke into open revolt. Throwing aside any pretext of religious freedom in Tibet, the Chinese government proclaimed the Dalai Lama’s choice “illegal” and its official Xinhua news agency denounced six-year-old Gedun Choekyi Nyima for having “once drowned a dog.” Gedun Choekyi Nyima and his family disappeared into Chinese custody, and have not been seen since despite numerous inquiries from the international community, including the UN Committee of the Rights of the Child, about his welfare. The PRC authorities subsequently installed their own Panchen Lama, a five-year-old boy named Gyaltsen Norbu whose parents were both Party members, in a hastily organized ceremony that involved drawing out ivory pieces from a golden urn and featured a heavy presence of CCP officials and rows of sullen monks. According to Arjia Rinpoche, present at the ceremony, Gyaltsen Norbu’s selection was a foregone conclusion. After the ceremony, a Chinese official accompanying Arjia Rinpoche back to Beijing “unwittingly revealed a shocking secret:…‘When we made our selection we left nothing to chance. In the silk pouches of the ivory pieces we put a bit of cotton at the bottom of one of them, so it would be a little higher than the others and the right candidate would be chosen.’” Tibetans typically refer to Gyaltsen Norbu, the boy chosen by Beijing, as ‘Panchen Zuma’ (fake Panchen) or ‘Gya Panchen’ (Chinese Panchen). Most Tibetans still do not accept him as legitimate. Chadrel Rinpoche was released from prison in 2002, after nearly seven years spent mostly in isolation, and there is uncertainty about his present status and whereabouts.

Even before the conflagration over the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation, the Party had been steadily escalating the rhetoric against the Dalai Lama and taking steps to curb the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. State media described him as, “a naked anti-China tool who has bartered away his honor for Western hostile forces’ patronage.” On February 15, 1996, China’s Tibet Daily published a statement by Tibet’s Commission of Nationalities and Religious Affairs asserting that: “We must close the doors of the lamaseries which have serious problems or where political problems often occur for overhauling and consolidation and set a time limit for correction.” The authorities subsequently closed several monasteries and nunneries. Later that year, the authorities announced that the ongoing campaign against what they considered ‘excess’ religion in Tibet would potentially continue for three to five years. Reuters quoted a Chinese propaganda official as saying, “Lamas who are comparatively reactionary will be told to return to secular life…Reorganization of monasteries will consist mainly of ideological education.”


On this, the 11th Panchen Lama’s birthday, we are keenly aware of how his experience connects to the rigid ongoing controls that continue in Tibet and the circumstances of daily life that are provoking the self-immolations protests, If we merely look narrowly at the area of religion in Tibet, we can see that Chinese policies have led to executions, torture, imprisonment, destruction of religious institutions, political indoctrination, expulsion of monks and nuns from monasteries and nunneries, the banning of religious ceremonies, restrictions on the numbers of monks in monasteries, and the extreme disruption of the religions practices of average Tibetans.

This devastating assault, painstakingly documented by the 10th Panchen Lama and demonstrated by the personal experience of the 11th Panchen Lama, has failed to rid Tibetans of their devotion to Tibetan Buddhism or secure their loyalty to the Chinese party-state.

To address the core issues of cultural destruction in Tibet, ICT calls on the Chinese authorities to urgently take several decisions including, in the area of religion, to suspend measures that codify the Chinese party-state’s inappropriate control over the process of recognition of reincarnate lamas.

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