China said Monday any successor chosen by the Dalai Lama would be “illegal” after the Tibetan spiritual leader announced that he, and not Beijing, would decide whether he should be reincarnated.
The Dalai Lama, who is 76, said on Saturday he would decide when he was “about 90” whether he should be reincarnated, in consultation with other monks, and that China should have no say in the matter.
Under Tibetan tradition, monks identify a young boy who shows signs he is a reincarnation of a late leader, but many predict China will simply appoint its own successor to the Dalai Lama.
China’s foreign ministry said any reincarnation process would have to be conducted in accordance with the country’s “laws and regulation”.
“The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government and is illegal otherwise,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei told journalists.
“There is a complete set of religious rituals and historical conventions in reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and a Dalai Lama identifying his own successor has never been the practice.
“The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should follow religious rituals and historical conventions and laws and regulations of this state.”
Tibet’s spiritual leader said he had decided to lay out “clear guidelines to recognise the next Dalai Lama” while he was still “physically and mentally fit” so that there was “no room for doubt or deception.”
The Dalai Lama made the statement in a 4,200-word document issued after a gathering of leaders of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism in the northern Indian hill town of Dharamshala, home of the government in exile.
He had earlier signalled a willingness to break with custom by choosing a successor before his death or among exiles outside Tibet. He had also said he might be open to electing the next Dalai Lama.
China’s stance raises the prospect of two Dalai Lamas — one recognised by Beijing and the other chosen by exiles or with the blessing of the current Dalai Lama.
This happened in 1995, when China rejected the Dalai Lama’s choice to be the next Panchen Lama, the second-highest ranking Tibetan Buddhist, and picked its own reincarnation.
The Chinese-raised Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu, is now 21 and often extols Beijing’s rule over Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s selection, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, has not been seen since 1995 after he was detained by China.
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. He later founded the government in exile in Dharamshala after being offered refuge by India.
China vilifies him as a “separatist” who incites violence in Tibet, while he insists his sole focus is a peaceful campaign for greater autonomy for his homeland.
China’s state news agency Xinhua echoed the ministry’s statements, calling the spiritual leader a “has-been” and saying his latest comments were aimed at keeping him in the spotlight following his retirement from politics.
“Over the decades since he fled China in 1959, the Dalai Lama has come to enjoy his role as a political monk, travelling across the globe, picking up his accolades and selling his independence claim,” it said.
“Like a has-been star, he fears the loss of popularity, a personal loss that does no harm to his fellow Tibetans, but would certainly announce the eventual failure of his separatist attempt.”