The race ended this weekend, when the Dalai Lama announced from exile in Dharamsala, India, that a six-year-old nomad living in Nagchu, Tibet, was the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. It is a tradition for the Dalai Lama to recognise the Panchen Lama and vice versa. But exiled Tibetans say Peking was carrying out its own search for the boy in an attempt to divide Tibetan loyalties.
On Saturday the Dalai Lama broke from a long retreat for meditation. He was seen consulting three Tibetan oracles. Then he met his exiled cabinet before announcing the discovery. It ends speculation that Tibetan monks had known the boy's whereabouts but were waiting for a chance to spirit him away from China's grasp. The last Panchen Lama, kept under house arrest by the Chinese, died in suspicious circumstances in 1989 after denouncing China's invasion of Tibet and pledging loyalty to the Dalai Lama. Some called him a Chinese puppet but the Dalai Lama referred to him as a freedom-fighter.
With Peking preoccupied with the impending death of the supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, it is difficult to forecast how the Chinese will respond to the Dalai Lama's recognition of the nomad boy as the Panchen Lama, according to Dharamsala sources. While the search was going on, the Chinese refused to let monks sent by the Dalai Lama search for the Panchen Lama in Tibet. Over the past six months the Chinese have intensified attacks on the "Dalai clique" in exile and have begun purging his followers in Tibet.
If the Chinese were seeking the Panchen Lama's reincarnation, they were handicapped: not only is it up to the Dalai Lama to find the Panchen Lama, but he uses tools unavailable to the average Chinese bureaucrat - dreams, omens and visions. "I have taken upon myself this historical and spiritual task with a strong sense of responsibility. Over the years, I have with great care performed all the necessary religious procedures for this purpose," he said.
"The search and recognition of the Panchen Rinpoche's reincarnation is a religious matter and not political. It is my hope that the Chinese government ...will extend its understanding, co-operation and assistance."
The first test of China's reaction will come soon. Traditionally, it is the Dalai Lama who enthrones the Panchen Lama. But certain traditions have already been stretched. As one Tibet expert said: "This may be the first time in many reincarnations that the Dalai Lama has recognised the Panchen Lama without first having physical contact with him."