A Generation in Peril: The Lives of Tibetan Children Under Chinese Rule
Epilogue: The Eleventh Panchen Lama

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, born on April 25, 1989 in the district of Lhari in northern Tibet, remains, at eleven years old, the youngest political prisoner in the world. Chinese authorities abducted him on May 17, 1995, three days after the Dalai Lama recognized the then-six-year-old boy as the reincarnation of the Tenth Panchen Lama, who died in 1989. Beijing has since held the boy together with his family in incommunicado detention and refused all requests by foreign governments to verify his safety. In fact, until the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child formally requested information about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, China denied that it held the child. In response to the Committee's inquiries, however, Chinese spokesman Wu Jianmin replied that '[s]ince separatists were seeking to kidnap the boy, the parents [became] fearful for his safety and requested Government protection, which ha[s] been provided. The boy [i]s living with his parents in good conditions.' In 1999, the PRC asserted that he was taken into 'protective custody for his own safety' but attends school and leads a 'normal life.' Recent reports suggest only that he remains in custody; his whereabouts and health are not known.

The detention of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and the PRC's subsequent installment of its own Panchen Lama, represent another attempt by the PRC to assert its sovereignty over Tibet. The apparent paradox of an officially atheist state claiming the right to control a quintessentially religious process - i.e., the rituals by which reincarnate lamas are divined and recognized in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition - can be understood, as several scholars have pointed out, in terms of the 'symbolic potency of the ceremony in demonstrating Chinese authority over Tibet.'

The Panchen Lama, however, has more than symbolic importance. His abduction and displacement by a PRC-selected child embodies China's desire to use future Tibetan religious leaders, such as the Eleventh Panchen Lama (considered the second most important religious leader in the dominant Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism), to secure the political loyalty of the next generation of Tibetans. There is no question that the abduction of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima violates international law. Article 35 of the CRC prohibits 'the abduction of . . . children for any purpose or in any form.' Even if, as the PRC claims, the boy has been taken into custody for his own protection, this does not justify China's refusal to permit U.N. bodies to verify his safety.

The Panchen Lama dispute is ultimately emblematic of a broader pattern of children's rights abuses in Tibet. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was recognized, in conformity with Tibetan tradition, by the Dalai Lama. He therefore remains, in the eyes of virtually all Tibetans, the sole legitimate Panchen Lama. His literal capture and seclusion by China, and the state's campaign to displace him with its own Panchen Lama, selected and groomed to serve the PRC's political needs in Tibet, reflect China's figurative attempt to 'capture' the next generation of Tibetans - to exert control over their personal development, religious beliefs, cultural habits, ethnic identity and, most of all, political loyalty. Indeed, in the high-profile conflict over the legitimacy of the Panchen Lama, we see writ large the same theme that emerges, time and again, in the general pattern of children's rights violations in Tibet: a reckless indifference to the welfare and rights of Tibetan children that results from the state's paramount interest in political control.