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China deploying its own lama in its battle over Tibet

BEIJING — In the propaganda war to implant its views of Tibet as widely as possible, China increasingly is deploying a lanky 19-year-old Tibetan with rimless glasses, a hint of a mustache and a husky voice.

Beijing anointed the Tibetan, Gyaltsen Norbu, more than a decade ago as the latest incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the No. 2 leader in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, even though many Tibetans consider him a fake.

Rarely seen in public, the Panchen Lama is suddenly all over the news. On a newscast Friday, he exalted the ruling Communist Party for pulling Tibetans from "very miserable lives" before a clampdown by China 50 years ago this month.

Earlier this week, the Panchen Lama praised the party's "wise leadership" in an editorial under his name in the People's Daily newspaper, the party mouthpiece.

Observers of China's news media describe the appearance of the Panchen Lama as an integral part of a broader media blitz to shape domestic public opinion about Tibet. It comprises hundreds of essays in the news pages and lengthy programming on the airwaves to praise the party's rule of Tibet and condemn the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, who's widely seen outside China as an icon of peace but whom China's leaders revile as a dangerous separatist.

"The Communist Party is pulling out all the stops," said David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. "This is one of the most aggressive propaganda attacks it has launched in recent years."

Bandurski added: "Tibet has been sealed off, and there are virtually no alternative voices. And the volume is loud on this story."

It's a particularly sensitive time in Tibetan areas. A year ago this month, the worst ethnic unrest in nearly two decades broke out over China's rule. This month also marks five decades since the Dalai Lama, Tibet's top spiritual leader, fled to exile in India after an aborted uprising.

The Dalai Lama said March 10 that life had become "hell on earth" for Tibetans under Chinese rule.

Attempting to seize the offensive, the party declared Saturday as Serf Emancipation Day in Tibet, claiming that it marks 50 years since 1 million Tibetans were pulled from serfdom under a despotic theocratic rule. It has ceremonies planned for the square in front of the imposing Potala Palace, the former holy sanctuary of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

For his part, the Panchen Lama lauds the officially atheist Communist Party, saying that Tibet under the Dalai Lama was inhumane in its treatment of laborers bonded to monasteries.

"Serfs had neither human rights nor freedoms," he said on the Friday newscast. "The estate owners treated them as horses, and even exchanged serfs as gifts."

In a statement, the Tibetan exile government decried Saturday's celebrations as "offensive and provocative" and suggested that Tibetans are more in the mood for mourning.

"If the 'serfs' are happy with their 'emancipation,' why are they risking lives and limbs to protest Chinese rule in Tibet?" the statement asked.

Beijing installed the disputed Panchen Lama in 1995, whisking away a different boy who the Dalai Lama said was the proper reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989. The other boy has never been seen again, and supporters of the Dalai Lama consider him a political prisoner.

Beijing's Panchen Lama largely has been kept out of sight, except for an appearance at a World Buddhist Forum in Hangzhou in 2006. Coincidentally, a new round of the forum takes place this weekend in Wuxi, and the youth is expected to appear again before 1,000 monks and scholars to talk about building a harmonious world.

On Friday, wearing crimson robes and large Tibetan-style boots, he attended a symposium on Serf Emancipation Day at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, grasping the hands of Jia Qinglin, the fourth-highest-ranking member of the ruling party.

In mid-March, the Panchen Lama toured a huge exhibition that Beijing has mounted to prove its case that Tibet under the Dalai Lama was a cruel place.

"Facts speak louder than words on these matters," he wrote March 23 in the People's Daily. "The remarkable progress Tibet has achieved since the 1959 democratic reforms indicates that only the Communist Party of China could regain dignity and freedom for former Tibetan serfs."

An outspoken Tibetan blogger, Tsering Woeser, said that few Tibetans gave the Panchen Lama much credibility, identifying him as a creation of majority Han Chinese.

"Tibetan people call him the 'Han Panchen,' " she said. "Few Tibetans believe in him. The majority of Tibetan people do not regard him as the real Panchen Lama."

In Tibetan monasteries across China's southwestern plateau leading to the Himalayas, monks display large photographs of the 10th Panchen Lama, exhibiting photos of the youth who Beijing says is his reincarnation only when obligated to do so.

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