CHENGDU, China -- Sichuan province's capital serves as China's gateway to Tibet for tourists and traders. Given that China rarely allows foreign correspondents to enter Tibet, Chengdu also plays a big role in the Tibetan rumor mill. And the rumor here these days is that HE has been found.
HE is a small boy who would become the 11th Panchen Lama, the second-highest spiritual figure in Tibetan Buddhism next to the exiled Dalai Lama.
The 10th Panchen Lama -- Bainqen Erdini Qoigyi Gyaincain -- died Jan. 28, 1989, at age 51, while visiting the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Xigaze, Tibet, the traditional seat of Panchen Lamas.
The official cause of his death was a sudden heart attack. Some Tibetans believe he was poisoned by Tibet's Chinese masters after denouncing their rule.
Such irreconcilable accounts reflect Tibetans' continuing resistance to China's harsh control -- a more than 40-year-old conflict that marked the 10th Panchen Lama's life and has
complicated the search for his reincarnation.
According to the beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism, embodiments of god, such as the Panchen Lama, are reborn after their deaths.
To find the holy child, senior Tibetan monks pray, consult oracles and study reflections on certain lakes. They finally test the boy by presenting him with an array of articles to check if he instinctively grabs some that belonged to the dead Panchen Lama.
These subtleties can take several years by themselves. Moreover, this is the first such search undertaken under Chinese rule so it is important to China's claim of sovereignty over Tibet -- particularly as whoever becomes the next Panchen Lama may deeply influence Tibetan desires for independence.
Shortly after the 10th Panchen Lama's death, China assigned the job of locating his successor to the Tashilhunpo Monastery, whose monks have chafed less under Chinese rule than those near Lhasa, Tibet's capital and the Dalai Lama's traditional home.
China declared that the new Panchen Lama must be found within Tibet or elsewhere in China -- not among the more than 100,000 exiled Tibetans, the majority of whom live in India.
China's executive Cabinet, the State Council, also asserted the right to approve the monks' choice, a right that China claims its emperors exerted as far back as the fifth Panchen Lama in the 17th century.
But the Dalai Lama, exiled to India since an abortive Tibetan uprising in 1959, also claims the right to select and approve the next Panchen Lama. His Tibetan government-in-exile says that without its participation the Chinese search is invalid.
The standoff is not without some precedent, as there often have been two Panchen Lamas at the same time -- one chosen by Tashilhunpo monks and one chosen by Lhasa monks. Lhasa's choice of the 10th Panchen Lama reportedly still is alive in a Scottish monastery.
These problems would be familiar to the 10th Panchen Lama, a plump, wordly man whose shriveled body -- embalmed by herbs, its face coated by gold leaf -- now sits in a glass case at Tashilhunpo.
Chosen in 1941, the 10th Panchen Lama spent much of his life walking a fine line at the center of the friction between his countrymen and China, becoming the only figure with some credibility on both sides of the conflict.
The 10th Panchen Lama mostly lived in Beijing and became a Chinese government official, but he refused to renounce the Dalai Lama and was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.
His critics say he was a Chinese pawn. But his defenders say he moderated Chinese policies toward Tibet, and even the Dalai Lama posthumously declared him a Tibetan freedom fighter.
Just before he died, he is widely believed to have delivered a damning judgment on China's four decades of rule over Tibet, saying it had caused more harm than good.
But the most surprising legacy left by the 10th Panchen Lama may stem from his little publicized marriage in the late 1970s to a Chinese woman, who pretended to be his personal secretary.
This most un-monklike liaison is said to have delayed anointing the 10th Panchen Lama's successor, as his widow reportedly refused, at least for a while, to hand over any of his personal articles -- possessions necessary to properly choose the new Panchen Lama.