CHINA has created a crisis over the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama, which must rank among the most bizarre in the history of communism. This story has all the ingredients of a mystical fable: a quest for a hidden identity, prophecies, golden urns, sacred lakes, secret messages, sudden deaths and arcane rituals. In cobwebbed monasteries on faraway snowy peaks, cadres plot and scheme against red-robed lamas. Church and state have joined battle to control the selection of the new Panchen Lama. In order to humiliate the Dalai Lama, China insists that only the central government can select the reincarnation with a lottery in a golden urn presented in 1792 by a Manchu emperor. Beijing has suspended its own search committee, detained the lama in charge, and asserted that it better understands Tibet's traditions than the Dalai Lama. The tale begins in January 1989, when the 10th Panchen Lama spoke openly and bitterly of the fate of the Tibetans since the Chinese invasion. He died shortly afterwards from a massive stroke and rumours inevitably spread that he had been poisoned. The Panchen Lama is a living Buddha or tulka, a being who has reached such a stage of enlightenment that he can choose to return to earth in the form of another human being. Tibetan Buddhism recognises thousands of living Buddhas, but the Panchen Lama ranks second in the hierarchy after the Dalai Lama. His status dates back to the 17th century when the great fifth Dalai Lama appointed his teacher as the abbot of the Tashilunpo Monastery. The Dalai Lamas are the spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet. A Panchen Lama does not have the same formal political authority, yet as the Dalai Lama's teacher, he can wield immense influence. The current Dalai Lama is 60 and when he dies, the new Panchen Lama will play a major role in the recognition and education of the rightful reincarnation. So clearly it is in Beijing's interests to control the new Panchen Lama from the start. For 35 years, Beijing has placed much importance on the fact that with the current Dalai Lama in exile, the 10th Panchen Lama was there to endorse their rule over the country's most troublesome minority. Chinese propaganda may laud the late Panchen as a great patriot and collaborator with the Communist Party but in reality he proved less than malleable. He was still a youth in his early 20s when in 1962, he published a 70,000-word report listing and condemning the horrors inflicted on the Tibetans during the 1959 revolt and the Great Leap Forward famine. As a result the Panchen spent nearly half his adult life either in prison or under some kind of detention. At the beginning the search for his reincarnation posed no great problems. As tradition dictated, a committee to search for his re-incarnation was headed by the acting abbot of his Tashilunpo monastery - a 51-year-old lama known as the Chatrel Rinpoche with a reputation for piety and asceticism. The Party gave its support to the committee and accepted that the Dalai Lama would later have to be consulted. But the Tiananmen rebellion led to the arrest of the liberal Secretary General of the Party Zhao Ziyang. Days later his open-minded protege, Yan Mingfu, was also dismissed. Yan headed the United Front Department, the party body charged with uniting overseas citizens in Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Yan Mingfu was blamed for being too soft on the Tibetans and allowing them to stage such unrest that in spring 1989 martial law was declared in Lhasa. The hardline premier Li Peng installed his own men charged with enforcing a tougher line. First the negotiations with the exiled Tibetans begun in 1979 were suspended. Secondly the Party ignored the Dalai Lama's requests to be consulted in the selection of the new Panchen Lama. Thirdly the United Front Department ordered the replacement of the Chatrel Rinpo-che. So Beijing had to find another senior Lama qualified to conduct the search and who would be more pliant. The choice fell on the abbot of Ta'er Si monastery in Qinghai province. Its abbot was the 13th Jiaya Rinpoche. An elderly man born into Qinghai's Mongolian tribes, he had suffered terribly in the Mao era and was now persuaded to co-operate. Most important of all, he was the teacher of the late Panchen Lama. Unfortunately for Beijing he died in 1990, aged 74, before he could complete his task. As it happens, his re-incarnation, the 14th Jiaya Rinpoche, was enthroned earlier this year. Back in China's capital, senior cadres tried and failed to persuade other senior lamas to take his place. Finally they were forced to go back to the Chatrel Rinpoche. At first there were about 25 candidates but by 1993 the Chatrel Rinpoche eventually whittled the choice down to three boys, all the sons of local herdsmen. ONE of the three was proclaimed last month by the Dalai Lama as the rightful reincarnation. The Chatrel Rinpoche then sent a report to the central government in Beijing and waited. According to tradition the next step was to inform the Dalai Lama, who after meditating, consulting oracles, and divination would then proclaim his decision. After the Tibetan revolt the Communist Party had outlawed religion and for 20 years there were no more re-incarnations. After 1979 the practice was resumed but under altered circumstances. Now the lamas could select living Buddhas under the authority of the Panchen Lama. However the Party insisted that it be seen to make the final decision and announcement. As long as a candidate was inside China's borders, this did not provoke insurmountable problems. Moreover the lamas inside Tibet remained in secret contact with the Dalai Lama who, unbeknown to the Chinese, would when necessary give his approval. Official contacts between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government began after Deng Xiaoping wrested control over the Communist Party in 1978. Deng then set in motion fresh policies for Tibet, including negotiations for the return of the Dalai Lama. To encourage him to come back, the leadership in Tibet was replaced, agricultural reforms introduced and religious freedom encouraged. In March 1979 one of the Dalai Lama's elder brothers, Gyalo Thondup, arrived in Beijing for the first high level talks since 1959. The negotiations suspended in 1989 finally resumed in July 1993 when Gyalo Thondup accompanied by Sonam Topgyal, political secretary of the Dalai Lama's cabinet, arrived in Beijing. These were the most important talks for many years. The Chatrel Rinpoche reported that he had identified the right candidate and in a meeting with Gyalo Thondup gave him a letter notifying the Dalai Lama of the conclusions of his search. For unclear reasons, things began to go very wrong at this stage. Perhaps because the exiled Tibetans suspected the Chinese were manipulating the Chatrel Rinpoche. Certainly a month later the Dalai Lama sent a message inviting the search team and the Chatrel Rinpoche to come to Dharamsala for consultations. Or perhaps the fault lay with the Chinese who decided it would be a political miscalculation to give the Dalai Lama face by formally recognising his right to assess the candidate. At any rate they turned down the Dalai Lama's invitation. Instead they tried to pressure the Chatrel Rinpoche that it was not necessary to consult the Dalai Lama. He refused to proceed with final selection and a stalemate ensued. In the meantime the Chatrel Rinpoche continued to consider the selection and was seen in late 1994 at the sacred lake, the Lhama Lhatsoi, seeking guidance. Some sources also claim there was an internal struggle within the United Front Department about the next course of action. Its head is a rising star within the Party, Wang Zhaoguo, a 44-year-old mechanical engineer from Harbin with little first-hand experience of Tibetan affairs. He is a former governor of Fujian province before moving up to become director of Taiwan affairs. The dispute may have been settled by Premier Li, who took a decision to entirely abandon all negotiations with the Dalai Lama's government. Consequently it became out of the question to co-operate with him over the appointment of the new Panchen Lama. Whatever the case, in September 1993 the Party announced that the search for the re-incarnation would continue. However the Party was then faced with the problem of how to legitimise a candidate without the Dalai Lama and against the advice of lamas inside the country. Finally Party cadres concluded that they could bypass the Dalai Lama and the Chatrel Rinpoche if they themselves organised a lottery ceremony to select a candidate from among those identified by the Chatrel Rinpoche. So in Lhasa an urn was dusted off, the Johkang temple renovated and the final preparations for the ceremony set in motion. Word spread that the chosen child would be enthroned later this year. The decision is based on the ambiguity surrounding Beijing's role in the selection of living buddhas. To understand this tradition one must first step back over 700 years to the Yuan dynasty, when the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan made Tibet a protectorate and appointed a senior Tibetan lama as his personal guru. This relationship was discontinued by the succeeding Chinese dynasty, the Ming. However the next conquerors of China, the Manchu tribes, tried to revive the relationship and the traditions established by the Mongols. By the end of the 18th century, when the Manchus were at the height of their power under the Emperor Qianlong, they began to intervene directly in Tibetan affairs. The Manchus were already helping in the selection of Mongolian living buddhas using a golden urn which still rests in the Lama Temple (the Yonghegong) in Beijing. Then in 1792 the emperor presented the Tibetans with another golden urn which was kept in the Potala Palace. The Chinese claim that the Beijing government still has a deciding role because the identity of the last Panchen Lama was confirmed by the Nationalist government. When a lottery is held the candidates' names are written on pieces of paper wrapped in balls of dough of equal weight. These are then dropped in the urn which is shaken until the balls fall out. The remaining ball holds the correct candidate's name. THE Party's insistence on the paramount importance of the lottery method is misleading because this is just one of the methods of divination used by the Tibetans. It is usually employed either to check a decision or when other methods have failed. The Dalai Lama is said to have tried this when in two minds whether to instruct the governor of Chamdo, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, to negotiate or fight the People's Liberation Army in 1950. And in 1959 when trying to decide whether to stay or flee Lhasa. Finally at the end of April this year, the Communist Party decided the time had come to spring a coup de theatre by holding the lottery in Lhasa's Johkang temple. Although they expected to take the Dalai Lama unawares, at the last moment they were thwarted when he received a tip off. The Dalai Lama decided he must act. On May 12, the holiest day in the Tibetan calendar, he issued a statement announcing that the rightful candidate had been selected. 'It is with great joy that I am able to proclaim the reincarnation of the Panchen Rinpoche. I have recognised Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, born on April 25, 1989 as the true reincarnation of Panchen Rinpoche.' 'In accordance with the historical and spiritual relationship between the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas the Search Committee for the Reincarnation, primarily represented by the Tashilunpo Monastery in exile in India and various groups and individuals from all regions of Tibet as well as from outside, have approached me to perform the examination and divination to determine the reincarnation. 'Over the recent years, I have with great care performed all necessary religious procedures for this purpose and have made supplications to the infallible Three Jewels. I am fully convinced of the unanimous outcome of all these recognition procedures performed in strict accordance with our religious traditions.' In Beijing the Communist Party swiftly responded by ordering the re-arrest of the Chatrel Rinpoche who was detained on his way to Shigatse from Beijing. He has in fact been under arrest since March when he came to Beijing to attend a meeting of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference but was released to attend to matters in his temple. He is now thought to be back in Beijing although China denies he has been arrested. However on May 17 two of his associates, Gyara Tsering Samdrup, and Jing-lag were also believed to have been seized. In the meantime, the Party propaganda machinery has sprung into action by mobilising other leading lamas. They have been ordered to voice their support for the government's actions in meetings in Lhasa and Beijing. Xinhua (The New China News Agency) quoted some attacking the Dalai Lama for failing to 'draw lots from a golden vessel, to speak nothing of reporting the choice to the central government. This is completely illegal and is a purely political scheme'. In another report, a member of the search team Gyaga Losangtampo was quoted insisting that the drawing of lots from a golden vessel 'is the most important rule' in the selection of the Panchen Lama. And that this was the method used to determine the identity of the last Panchen Lama. Vice Chairman of the National People's Congress and living buddha Pagbalha Geleg Namgyi reportedly alleged that the Dalai Lama has 'revealed a clear political motive in denying the authority of the central government, sowing discord and sabotaging the stability and unity of Tibet'. The Sixth Tibet Autonomous Regional People's Congress stressed that the Dalai Lama had 'disregarded the established historical system and disrupted religious rites'. Others spoke of an 'evil plot' and one meeting in Lhasa passed a resolution asserting that the Dalai Lama's confirmation is 'illegal and invalid and we will never recognise it'. So what will happen now ? The Communist Party, the embodiment of 'scientific socialism' now finds itself in the curious position of insisting that it knows more about arcane Tibetan rituals than either the Dalai Lama or the Chatrel Lama. It appears to have rejected the Dalai Lama's chosen child. Yet if it proclaims a rival child, Tibetans are sure to reject him. This could result in there being two rival Panchen Lamas. The Party can best salvage its position by pressuring the Chatrel Rinpoche into disowning the Dalai Lama and publicly rejecting the boy Panchen Lama. So far he has refused to give in and in the meantime the Dalai Lama has issued a statement demanding his release. Tragically for the millions of Tibetans in China, they are now left without the presence of either a Panchen or Dalai Lama. With positions on both sides so entrenched they can only pray for a profound political change in Beijing, a new leadership and new Tibet policy. After conducting divination ceremonies and listening to the state oracle, the Dalai Lama is convinced that this must happen.