The Search for the Panchen Lama 
by Isabel Hilton.
Penguin, 336 pp., £7.99, August 2001, 0 14 024670 3
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The Tibetan Government presently sits in exile in McLeod Ganj, a small town outside Dharamsala separated from Tibet itself by the ramparts of the Himalayas. The Dalai Lama escaped there in 1959, after a major uprising against the Chinese occupation. A microcosm of old Lhasa has formed in the town around the nucleus of the Dalai Lama: schools teach in Tibetan and English, there are various government ministries, a national library, a troupe which preserves and performs Tibetan dances and songs. Versions of the main Tibetan monasteries have been built where the monks go about their business dressed in an unlikely combination of Buddhist robes and Doc Martens. McLeod Ganj also enjoys a thriving tourist trade, fed chiefly by Westerners who have contracted what Isabel Hilton calls ‘Shangri-La Syndrome’.

Despite its prosperity and solid infrastructure, McLeod Ganj has an air of temporariness, of waiting for something: there is a sense that when the time comes, the community will just up sticks and relocate to Lhasa, where the old ways will be resumed. But at present the cause of Tibetan independence is in more difficulty than at any stage since the country’s occupation by the People’s Republic in March 1951. The problem for those who want independence is that so much of the unity and momentum of the Tibetan cause depends on the current Dalai Lama, who is both the global face of exiled Tibet and its spiritual centre. The whole world knows the Dalai Lama: he has become an unmissable cultural icon, as well as a cultural industry in his own right (in an search, he turns up as the author of an implausible 158 books). Most impressively, he has managed to raise funds and support from the West without coming to seem a money-grubber in the eyes of the Tibetan community. When he dies – he is now 66 – Tibetan nationalism will be deprived of its hub, and will surely find it hard to resist the centrifugal force of exile. This, at any rate, is what the Government in Beijing is hoping for. And it has good reason to believe that the Dalai Lama’s death will swing the game its way because it has, by underhand means, taken control of the selection of his successor.

Tibetan governance is founded on the doctrine of reincarnation. The Dalai Lama is a bodhisattva – an incarnation of an aspect of Buddha. When an incarnate dies, the unhoused aspect selects another foetus in which to ‘emanate’: to take flesh. There is no secular logic to the choice of the new incarnate, except that he will be male and Tibetan, and the emanation is not immediate: the soul can take its time traversing the spirit world, sometimes dawdling there for two or three years.

This unconventional dynastic mechanism has two important consequences. The first is that on the death of a Dalai Lama there is always an interregnum before the new incarnate is identified, traditionally a period in which there is a great deal of jostling for power. The second is that a search has to be mounted to discover the whereabouts of the new incarnate. Once a search party has been formed (itself a vexed process), the searchers begin by consulting various oracles. The most famous of these is Lhamo Latso, a sacred melt-water lake whose surface is disturbed by the wind into patterns that can be interpreted: a set of letters or figures, for example, or a glimpse of a house or mountain. If a specific location can be divined from the clues, the search party will travel there to inspect the young males of the area for signs of godhead. Often, the searchers will carry props with them and carry out recognition tests: the boys may be shown a collection of artefacts, some of which belonged to the previous bodhisattva, and asked to pick from them. Candidates may also be marked out by physical signs, such as abnormally long earlobes – a Tibetan equivalent of the Habsburg nose. By these laborious means, a shortlist is drawn up. The final selection is made by the Panchen Lama, usually in consultation with the monks of Lhasa.

For four centuries the Panchen Lama has been the second most important spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lamas – the absolute heads of state – have been based in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, while the Panchen Lamas have ruled from the monastery of Tashilhunpo, near Shigatse, 160 miles west of Lhasa. The last Panchen Lama, the tenth, died in 1989 under suspicious circumstances at Tashilhunpo – poisoned, according to the prevailing rumour, by the Chinese security services for his outspoken views. His premature death devastated Tibet, but for the Tibet Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party it was a unique opportunity to take control of the dynastic processes. If the new incarnation of the Panchen Lama could be found and brought under the power of Beijing, then, when the time came, this puppet Panchen could be used to select an equally fake Dalai Lama, and Tibet would lose both its spiritual figureheads.

Shortly after the death of the Panchen Lama, both the Chinese and the Tibetans began to cast around for his new incarnation. The search took nearly six years, and its resolution was no resolution at all. Two young Tibetan boys now bear the title of Panchen Lama. One is the CCP’s pet Panchen, the candidate they nominated in 1995 and whom they now wheel out on appropriate occasions in a show of tolerance for Tibetan Buddhism. The other, the candidate chosen by the Dalai Lama at roughly the same time, has not been seen since shortly after his selection, when he was arrested by the Chinese. He is thought to be in captivity somewhere near Beijing, the world’s youngest political prisoner. A photograph of him exists, which shows a young boy with cropped dark hair, his face bleached by the flash, wearing a tangerine tracksuit top. This is the photograph on the cover of The Search for the Panchen Lama, Isabel Hilton’s patient and poised attempt to elucidate the background to this extraordinary story and its implications for Tibet. The photograph can also be found in the homes of Tibetans – exiles and residents – who have no truck with Beijing’s puppet Panchen.

Hilton first learned of the search during a visit to McLeod Ganj in 1994. For a year she went back and forth, researching, interviewing, and trying by means of donkey-work and guesswork to see through the thick haze of propaganda, superstition and emotion which hung about the facts. Her job was not made easy by either side. The Chinese suspected that Hilton was not a run-of-the-mill journalist and put her under surveillance; she describes being tailed by men on motorbikes and watched in noodle-shops. Of the Tibetans who were prepared to talk, many had political axes to grind. Some displayed idiosyncrasies which, even for an experienced interviewer, must have taken a little getting used to:

He gave me his card. ‘The Venerable Thupten Ngodub’, it read, ‘Medium of the state oracle of Tibet’. There was a phone number, too. Thupten Ngodub was a young monk with a face of almost theatrical calm and a soft, deep voice. As well as being the medium of the state oracle, he was celebrated as a cartoonist: his Mickey Mouse was particularly famous. ‘In order to avoid any misunderstanding,’ he said by way of prelude, ‘I want to explain that at the moment, in this conversation, I am just an ordinary human being.’

Hilton tells her story in a mixture of first-person journalese and careful historical narrative. In the first half of the book she discusses the history of Sino-Tibetan relations, from the fifth century AD up to the death of the tenth Panchen Lama; the second half covers events from 1989 to the present day.

Tibet has had a rough time of it over the last hundred years, first of all at the hands of the British. In 1904, the walrus-moustached Great Gamer Francis Younghusband led a British force into Tibet from India. The alleged casus belli was territorial incursion (Tibetan ‘troops’ were reported to have crossed the frontier and carried off Nepali yaks): in fact, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, was worried about Russian influence in Tibet. Younghusband, keen for action, recommended that ‘the power of the monks . . . be so far broken as to prevent them any longer selfishly obstructing the prosperity both of Tibet and of the neighbouring British districts’. The first stand-off came near the village of Guru. Two thousand Tibetans armed with matchlock guns, swords and spears faced a smaller British force armed with cannon and Maxim-guns. The British fired, according to a Tibetan survivor, ‘for the length of time it would take six successive cups of hot tea to cool’. When the firing stopped, 12 British soldiers had been wounded, and 628 Tibetans killed. By the time Younghusband marched into Lhasa, a further two thousand Tibetans had died for the loss of forty of the invaders.

In 1904, Tibet was nominally under the protectorship of the Manchu Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. The British were able to march in with impunity, however, because the power of the Qing had waned steadily during the course of the 19th century. For much of that period, Tibetans were autonomous in all but name: they pursued their own model of agrarian feudalism, warred with neighbouring states, and eventually provided the high-altitude chess-board on which the Russians and British played out their Great Game. In 1911, when the Qing dynasty lost power, the Tibetans took the opportunity to eject all Chinese troops from their country, and from 1913 to 1951 they again enjoyed effective autonomy.

It was a precarious state. The British had shown how vulnerable the Tibetan Army was to modern ordnance. Aware of the likelihood of future conflict with China, the progressive element in Tibet made intermittent resolutions to modernise their military. Each resolution, however, was kiboshed by a conservative establishment which distrusted modernisation both economically – it brought heavier tax burdens – and ideologically: it might usher in a secular technocracy that would undermine the power of Buddhism. In 1950, when the newly victorious Mao sent orders for an invasion, there was little the Tibetans could do. After years of fighting with the Nationalists, forty thousand troops of the 18th Route Army reluctantly shouldered arms once more and crossed over from Qinghai into Tibet. They met with almost no resistance: what the Chinese called the ‘peaceful occupation’ of Tibet was achieved by the spring of 1951.

There are two competing versions of the Chinese occupation, neither of which is quite right. It is to Hilton’s credit that, despite her obvious loathing of Chinese policy, she is prepared to acknowledge that both sides are guilty of myth-making. According to the first version – ‘the exile interpretation of history’ – ‘Tibet was never subject to the political control of China. The relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Qing emperors was one of priest to patron . . . In the exile memory, Tibet’s political past was one of harmony and prosperity, that of a people living content within a deeply religious culture, offering voluntary allegiance to their spiritual leader.’ In this version, Tibetans were practising their benign form of feudalism – one which was certainly not despotic enough to sanction a Chinese invasion on humanitarian or ‘civilising’ grounds – until the expansionist Chinese imposed their brutal brand of secular modernity. The negative of this, the Chinese version of events, is that in 1951 Beijing reacquired a territory which was theirs by inalienable right of history, and set about modernising what was (in the words of Rupert Murdoch, a man always keen to curry favour with the CCP) ‘a medieval state ruled over by a monk in Gucci shoes’.

The crux of the matter is whether or not Tibet enjoyed de facto independence during the period 1913-51, a question to which there is no easy answer. International law does not recognise the inalienability of territory: therefore, if Tibet was indeed an independent state during those years, by 1951 the Chinese had lost all legitimate claim. Much turns on the difficult concept of ‘suzerainty’, a term the British imported from a European context and applied inappropriately to the relationship between Tibet and China (there is no equivalent term to ‘suzerainty’ in either Tibetan or Chinese). In 1914, in exchange for China undertaking not to permit Russian interference, the British nominated China as the ‘suzerain’ power in Tibet. The result is that whenever the issue of Tibetan independence has been raised since 1951, China invokes Britain’s recognition of its suzerainty to prove that it never relinquished control.

Mao’s stated purpose in occupying Tibet was impeccably Marxist: he claimed the invasion was an important stage in the creation of a global proletariat. It soon became clear, however, that Tibetan nationalism – which more or less meant Buddhism – would not simply capitulate before the logic of Marxism. As the current repression of the Falun Gong shows, Marxism, at least in its Chinese avatar, cannot tolerate the existence of a competing belief system; and almost as soon as he had gained control of Tibet, Mao tried to find a justification for drastic reform. The 1959 revolt, sparked by rumours that the Chinese were planning to kidnap the Dalai Lama, provided the perfect excuse. Stone-throwing and shouting in the streets of Lhasa quickly metastasised into a serious insurgency. Mao was delighted; ‘the Tibetan problems are very likely to be resolved by force,’ he advised the military command in Lhasa: ‘this kind of force is good.’ The Dalai Lama consulted his oracle and decided to flee; disguised as a soldier, he escaped on horseback to the Indian frontier and went from there to Dharamsala.

The story since 1959 is fairly well known. Mao set in motion a brutal programme of reforms, which have been continued with varying degrees of ferocity ever since. The colonial policies deployed come straight from the textbooks of imperialism: there has been mass immigration on the part of the dominant Han Chinese, who have benefited from tax breaks, high salaries and a relaxation of the one-child policy. The apparatus of cultural transmission has been smashed: monasteries have been destroyed, libraries gutted and teachers interned. Tibet’s population is now around six million; the highest estimate of Tibetans killed by famine, labour camps, torture or execution since 1951 is one million.

On the other side of the Himalayas, the Dalai Lama has been organising and inspiring the campaign for Tibetan independence. Under his direction, and with the help of international pressure groups and Western funds, the Free Tibet bandwagon has become a sleek and efficient vehicle on which glitterati Buddhists such as Richard Gere, Harrison Ford and the noxious Steven Seagal hitch regular rides. The Chinese occupation of Tibet has become the highest-profile colonial issue in the global consciousness, and a considerable weight about the neck of the CCP. The anti-China lobbies in both the Clinton and the Bush Administrations have been given leverage by the ‘Tibet question’, in recent discussion of China’s entry into the WTO and of the choice of Beijing as the venue for the 2008 Olympic Games, although in both cases China ultimately got what it wanted. America is voluble, if ineffective, in its criticism of China: Britain, by contrast, prefers to keep its silence – which is all the more unimpressive given the part Britain played in creating the current situation. When America proposed a UN Human Rights Commission resolution condemning China in 1999, Britain refused to act as a sponsor. When Jiang Zemin visited Britain two years ago, police vans lined the streets to hide Free Tibet protestors from him; Tony Blair chose to talk trade rather than human rights.

In January 1995, about a year after she had first met the Dalai Lama, Hilton received an early-morning phone call from his secretary, asking her to come to McLeod Ganj as soon as possible. She arrived to find that she had become a player in the game she had set out to describe. The Dalai Lama had chosen the boy he believed to be the new Panchen Lama, but he knew that the Chinese, in collaboration with elements of the Tibetan establishment, were backing a rival child. To pre-empt a Chinese announcement, the Dalai Lama had decided to make public his choice of successor and Hilton had been summoned to act as an international witness. She persuaded a Swedish camera team to help her film the secret annunciation ceremony and on 14 May 1995, news was released that the Dalai Lama had chosen a new Panchen Lama.

Beijing’s response was immediate. They swooped on the nominated boy and his escort, who were still on Chinese soil, and imprisoned them. Then they named their puppet candidate and set about discrediting the Dalai Lama’s choice. The Dalai Lama had neglected to observe the protocol of the selection procedure: instead of simply picking a child, the candidate should have been selected by drawing lots from the Golden Urn, introduced into the selection process by a Qing-Chinese Emperor in 1792 after a particularly dirty and vexed succession quarrel. The Emperor’s idea was that, in order to avoid future disagreements, the names of shortlisted candidates should be placed in the urn. The name that was picked was the true incarnate and a lottery-draw from a gilded tombola became a divine decree. However, as Hilton explains, the use of the Golden Urn had long since lapsed. Beijing’s insistence on its centrality to the selection process was a classic instance of China’s readiness to retrofit history.

Since 1995 Chinese policies in Tibet have hardened. The CCP have turned the issue of the Panchen Lama into what Hilton calls ‘a nationwide loyalty test’. There have been violent purges of the religious communities in Tibet, and the monks who staff the monasteries, like those in the gorgeous Lama Temple in north-east Beijing, are now screened for ideological suitability. An intensive propaganda campaign has been waged against the Dalai Lama. Monks and nuns are required to reject his authority, and his image was outlawed from Tibet in 1994. While the Chinese wait for him to die, they continue to transform the cityscape of Lhasa, building grey, low-rise housing interrupted only by the massive white walls and golden roofs of the Potala Palace. Exiled Tibetans seem equally ready to wait, claiming that the imprisonment of the authentic Panchen Lama has merely strengthened the bonds of their imagined community.

There are two central ironies in this bleak history. The first is that the CCP, which would like to see itself as the last great redoubt of Marxism and ultra-secularism, has had to take extensive account of reincarnation and the other supernatural processes of Tibetan Buddhism. The second irony is that when China entered Tibet in 1950, it intended to eradicate nationalism, but as the ideological stock of Maoist Marxism has fallen, the Government has mobilised a latent nationalism to take its place. The concept of the ‘motherland’ is now a powerful force in the Chinese consciousness, and the CCP justifies its ‘anti-splittist’ policies on the grounds of territorial integrity. The contradiction that full-blown nationalism can continue to masquerade as Marxism seems untenable from outside. But as Jiang Zemin is fond of saying to those who enquire about his policies on Tibet, ‘foreigners do not fully understand China’s goals.’

A nation needs territory; an imagined community cannot sustain itself ungrounded for ever. The Dalai Lama has said that he would be willing to compromise on the issue of independence provided Beijing allowed Tibet self-governance: a one-country, two-systems arrangement, as in Hong Kong. Beijing will have none of it. One option for the Tibetans is to be patient, and hope that the CCP crumbles before they do. They might have time on their side: the Dalai Lama’s personal astrologer has forecast that he will live to be 120. But there are reasons to look for a rapid solution. Beijing recently announced that it was planning to build a railway from Szechuan Province to Lhasa, claiming that it will ‘promote the economic development of the Tibet Autonomous Region’. The Tibetans see it only as a way of facilitating the flow of Han Chinese into Tibet, and enmeshing Tibet still further in China’s economy. Since 1989, China has made a determined effort to entangle Tibet economically – for example, by encouraging non-Tibetan entrepreneurs to set up business there – which has left the Tibetans culturally beleaguered and poor. Beijing’s apparent economic liberalisation of Tibet masks a more insidious intent, and it may be this version of the waiting game which will win out in the end.

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