BEIJING China repeated a call on the Dalai Lama on Wednesday to respect what it said was the historic practice of reincarnation, after the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader implied in a newspaper interview he may be the last to hold the position.
The Dalai Lama, in an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, said the tradition of the post could end with him, adding the Tibetan Buddhism was not dependent on a single person.
The Dalai Lama, 79, has stated previously that he will not be reborn in China if Tibet is not free and that no one, including China, has the right to choose his successor "for political ends". China has previously warned the Dalai Lama he has no right to abandon the tradition of reincarnation.
China, which regards the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist, has ruled Tibet with an iron fist since Communist troops marched in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing that when it came to the reincarnation of living Buddhas, including the Dalai Lama, China had a "set religious procedure and historic custom".
"China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism," Hua said.
"The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The (present) 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism."
In 1995, after the Dalai Lama named a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, China put that boy under house arrest and installed another in his place.
Many Tibetans spurn the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama as a fake.
Traditionally, high lamas, Buddhist priests, can take years to identify a child deemed to be a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, a search usually limited to Tibet.
Tibetans fear that China will use the issue of the Dalai Lama's religious succession to split Tibetan Buddhism, with one new Dalai Lama named by exiles and one by China after his death.
China says its rule has brought much needed development to poor and backward Tibet. Exiles and rights groups accuse China of failing to respect Tibet's unique religion and culture and of suppressing its people.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)