HANGZHOU, China – China's controversial choice for a Tibetan holy figure made his first major appearance before an international audience Thursday, saying Tibetan Buddhists should be patriotic and "defend the nation."
Gyaltsen Norbu, 16, is the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism and a key figure in the struggle for the religion's future that pits China's officially atheistic communist regime against supporters of the exiled Dalai Lama.
Norbu is believed to live in Beijing amid intense secrecy and is almost never seen in public.
He was seated onstage at the opening of the five-day World Buddhist Forum, a gathering of about 1,000 monks, nuns and scholars from more than 30 countries that China is using to showcase its cultural diplomacy and its willingness to use traditional beliefs to ease social tensions.
The tall, thin teenager delivered a 10-minute speech in Tibetan that, according to an official translation, dwelt on Buddhism's responsibility to foster patriotism and national unity.
"Defending the nation and working for the people is a solemn commitment Buddhism has made to the nation and society," Norbu said.
He praised his predecessor, who was imprisoned for years after openly criticizing Beijing's politics in Tibet, for having made "outstanding contributions to the unity of the country and the solidarity of the people."
It was believed to be the first time Norbu took part in an international religious gathering, an apparent sign that Beijing is seeking greater acceptance for its choice of the Panchen Lama.
Scores of police and plainclothes security agents guarded the hall where Norbu was speaking.
Beijing installed Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995, rejecting another boy chosen by the Dalai Lama. That other boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, has not been seen in public since and Chinese officials refuse to say where he is.
The opening ceremony of the World Buddhist Forum in the resort city of Hangzhou southwest of Shanghai featured speeches by Chinese officials heralding the country's social progress under communist rule. Monks and nuns stood silently against a backdrop of a huge picture of Buddha flanked by the five-color Buddhist flag.
Officials said Wednesday that the Dalai Lama — the world's most famous Buddhist person — wasn't welcome. "The Dalai Lama is not purely a religious figure," said Qi Xiaofei, a Communist Party official who is vice-director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
"He is also a saboteur of ethnic unity and a pursuer of splittism, so his presence here would have constituted an inharmonious voice when what we're seeking is harmony," Qi said.
Qi's comments echoed China's long-standing rejection of the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 following an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet.
China claims the Dalai Lama's recognition of a new Panchen Lama violated traditional codes that had at times given the Chinese emperor a role in that process.
Supporters of the Dalai Lama deny that, saying Beijing was angered by what it saw as open defiance. Since the Panchen and Dalai lamas play a major role in recognizing each other's successors, Beijing's influence over the Panchen Lama potentially gives it additional leverage over a future Dalai Lama.
A spokesman for the Dalai Lama on Thursday again rejected Beijing's right to make the final decision on reincarnations.
"Reincarnation is a religious belief and it cannot be decided by an administrative office," Thubten Samphel said by telephone from the Tibetan government-in-exile's headquarters in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala.
China maintains strict controls over all religions and the rules are especially tight in Tibet, where Buddhism is an integral part of the restive Himalayan region's separate identity.
While China has allowed the rebuilding of many of the thousands of temples destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, monasteries, temples, mosques and churches are still barred from operating schools, hospitals or other civic institutions.
The restrictions remain despite China's increased willingness to give religion its due as a way of promoting stability in times of rapid social and economic change. Experts say Beijing especially favors Buddhism and Confucianism because, unlike Christianity, they are viewed as homegrown and not threatening to authority.
Among the hand-picked attendees at the conference, one Tibetan monk praised the regime for its greater tolerance.
"Things are more open and Buddhism is now developing very fast in China," said Saichun Lodan, dressed like Norbu in deep red robes with a saffron lining.
Of the young Panchen's speech, he said: "He's studying very hard and growing very well."