China's ruling Communist Party, which has hit out at Tibetan exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama over the question of his reincarnation, wants to reassert its own "rules" governing the process in spite of its atheist world-view, analysts said this week.
In attacking the Dalai Lama's claim that Tibetans should be the arbiters of his fate in the afterlife, Beijing is seeking to enforce a top-level 2007 directive on how the senior figures of Tibetan Buddhism must transmit their titles from lifetime to lifetime, according to Chinese commentators.
The Dalai Lama's statement in September asserting that he or other Tibetan leaders should be the ones to decide on his reincarnation may have been a last-ditch response to Beijing's hard line in religious affairs, according to retired Seton Hall University professor Yang Liyu, who recently discussed the matter with the exiled spiritual leader.
"The Dalai Lama was quite despairing about this when he spoke to me," Yang said.
He said the Party had no qualms about dictating in metaphysical matters where its political interests were concerned.
"Even though it is atheist, they carry out oppression of all religious activities," Yang said. "That includes the underground groups in Catholicism and Protestant Christianity."
"[The Party] has never respected religion ... It wants to control all of it."
The Dalai Lama had said in September that he will decide at age 90 whether he will have a reincarnated successor, but added that Beijing will have no say in who will succeed him as Tibet's spiritual leader if he decides the tradition should continue.
The statement came after a meeting between the Dalai Lama and the leaders of the four Tibetan Buddhist sects, the first since he transferred his political role earlier this year to an elected prime minister.
The Dalai Lama's comments sparked an angry response in China's official media.
"The Dalai Lama not only is attempting to bury long established historical tenets of Tibetan Buddhism with him when he dies, but is adding another criminal charge to his teachings of separatism, which damages Tibet and Buddhism," the Communist Party-backed People's Daily said in an editorial on Monday.
In 1995, Beijing rejected the Dalai Lama's chosen reincarnation of the Panchen Lama—the second holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, detaining him and appointing its own Panchen Lama in his place.
The latest debate over the reincarnation comes amid a wave of self-immolations in Tibetan regions of China by monks, nuns, and ordinary Tibetans in protest at Chinese rule.
Many of those who set fire to themselves called for the return to Tibet of the Dalai Lama as they did so.
China has already jailed three people for helping one such protester, and has vowed to crack down on further self-immolation protests.
The People's Daily drew parallels between what it calls the Dalai Lama's "clique" and the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas.
"At that time, David Koresh called himself Jesus, ensnared large groups of followers, publicly opposed national law, and in 1993 he was eliminated by federal agents who even used tanks," the paper said.
Analysts said the approach of Communist Party officials to the religious activities of Chinese citizens has always been one of bureaucratic and ideological control.
"The religious affairs bureau of the State Council [China's cabinet] issued a set of guidelines for the reincarnation of high-ranking lamas in September 2007," said Ding Yifu, a U.S.-based Chinese scholar who specializes in Tibet.
"The religious affairs bureau is one of the arms of the State Council," Ding said. "On what basis does it claim such power?"
"The religious affairs bureau has ignored what is in the Constitution."
Clause 36 of China's Constitution guarantees freedom of religion for Chinese citizens, as well as providing for the autonomy of ethnic minority regions, he said.
"They never asked any of the religious leaders, monks or lamas [when they formulated these rules]."
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.