China's Panchen Lama promises Xi he will uphold national unity

BEIJING (Reuters) - A youth named by China as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, but reviled as a fake by many Tibetans, on Wednesday told President Xi Jinping he backed national unity and would strive to meet the Communist Party’s expectations.

Gyaltsen Norbu (R), the 11th Panchen Lama, speaks with a delegate ahead of the opening of the third plenary meeting of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 11, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Although officially atheist, China selected Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995, in a drive to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans.

Tibet’s current spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had announced his own choice of a six-year-old boy, but he was taken away by authorities and has since vanished from public view.

This year marks not only the 20th anniversary of the boy’s disappearance, but also the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 following an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.

It is also the 50th anniversary of the founding of what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region.

At a meeting in the party’s Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing, China’s Panchen Lama told Xi he would “resolutely uphold the unity of the motherland and its people”, state television said in its main evening news bulletin.

He would “not fail to live up to the ardent expectations of the party and people”, the report added.

Xi said the party paid great attention to events in Tibet, and would send a delegation to mark 50 years of the founding of the autonomous region.

“Tomorrow will be even better for all the people of Tibet,” Xi said, adding that he hoped China’s Panchen Lama would promote patriotism and uphold national unity.

China has gradually exposed its Panchen Lama in public roles in the hope he will achieve the respect commanded by the Dalai Lama among Tibetans and globally, and in 2012 he made his first trip outside mainland China when he visited Hong Kong.

Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950. After the Dalai Lama fled, the 10th Panchen Lama stayed on and was initially seen as a collaborator, but it later emerged that his criticism of Beijing had earned him more than a decade spent either in prison or under house arrest.

Freed in 1977, he was politically rehabilitated the following year, and died in 1989.

Activists say China has violently tried to stamp out religious freedom and culture in Tibet, which remains under heavy security. China rejects the criticism, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez