Focus topics

Panchen Lama – abducted without a trace

On the left, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima at age six; on the right, how he might look today.

It is exactly 27 years to the day that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima became the world’s youngest political prisoner. It was May 17, 1995, when Chinese security forces abducted the then six-year-old. To this day, there is no conclusive sign of life from Nyima. His parents also disappeared that day.

The official Communist Party version claims that the young man leads a normal life in China and does not want the public to know about it. Allegedly, he recently sent word that the world should respect his wish for privacy.

But why on earth would a nation see a six-year-old as a threat to its political system and kidnap him for that reason? The answer lies in Beijing’s deep-rooted concern that Buddhism could be stronger among the approximately five million Tibetans in the People’s Republic than their loyalty to the Party.

Nyima is a key figure in Tibetan Buddhism. His fate was sealed 27 years and three days ago. At that time, the Dalai Lama recognized the child as the reincarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama. As such, Nyima is the spiritual second in command of the Tibetan faith. In this role, he has crucial duties to fulfill for Tibetan Buddhism. He is responsible for seeking the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. The Panchen Lama is also responsible for his training and education.

State control as a compromise

But just three days after his designation, the child disappeared along with his parents. The CCP broke its own laws to shield the now 33-year-old man from the public eye. The search for him is all the more difficult because there is only one photo of Nyima, which shows him when he was six years old. In 2016, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) had an expert create a facial composite of the man based on this photo. It shows the Panchen Lama as he might look today.

Because the abduction is not forgotten outside the country and human rights groups remind people of Nyima’s fate year after year, the Chinese Foreign Office has to repeatedly comment on the matter. “The so-called spiritual boy is a normal Chinese citizen living a normal life,” its spokesman said in late April in response to questions about Nyima’s whereabouts.

The US State Department had taken the occasion of his 33rd birthday to issue a repeated statement. “We urge PRC authorities to account for Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s whereabouts and well-being immediately and to allow him to fully exercise his human rights and fundamental freedoms, in line with the PRC’s international commitments,” it said. Beijing, on the other hand, referred to a “smear campaign” against China.

The regime even presented its own Panchen Lama years ago, who, in line with the Party’s ideology, is trying to get Tibetans on its side. Beijing’s hope is to get the Buddhists under control the way it has largely succeeded with the Catholics. The Party offers a compromise by not banning people’s faith as long as they practice it under the umbrella of communism. But the vast majority of Tibetans recognize this as a foul compromise because, in their opinion, the CCP offers only a shell, while stripping away the meaning of their faith. Marcel Grzanna


    Li Cheng – testimonials against discrimination
    Thomas Hoellmann – ‘Multiculturalism is at risk’
    Yu Zhang – more communication through art
    Philip Clart – a sinologist with a soft spot for religious movements