Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has never been heard from since, but on Tuesday, China said he was a college graduate with a job, and that neither he nor his family wished to be disturbed in their “current normal lives.”
The brief comments, made by Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian during a regular press briefing, offer a rare window into the apparent life of the now 31-year-old.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was identified by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995, six years after the death of his predecessor. But Beijing rejected him and quickly put forward its own candidate, Gyancain Norbu, who the Chinese government claims is the “real” Panchen Lama.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also denounced “China’s persecution” of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and called on Beijing to “make public the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts” and respect Tibetans’ freedom of religion.
The most important purpose of the Panchen Lama from Beijing’s perspective is the role he traditionally plays in identifying the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, revered as a living god by Tibetan Buddhists. With the current holder of that title, Tenzin Gyatso, now 84, there’s a strong chance that a successor will be needed sooner rather than later.
For his part, the current Dalai Lama has said his successor could be found outside Tibet, and also suggested he may not reincarnate at all, making him the last person to hold that title. In recent years, he has moved to secularize the Tibetan government in exile, ceding non-religious authority to political figures, a stark contrast to the theocratic society once ruled over in Tibet by his predecessors.
“It is a reality that no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her,” the Dalai Lama said. “It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas.”
CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to this report.