As of September 1, China is tightening control over Tibetan Buddhism with a new law requiring government permission for the reincarnation of lamas. Tibetan activists say this is another attempt by communist Chinese leaders to undermine Tibetan culture and even absurdly to control the religious afterlife. VOA's Heda Bayron has more on the story from our Asia News Center in Hong Kong.
The new law bans Tibetan lamas, or monks, from reincarnating without Chinese government approval.
China, which has ruled Tibet for more than half a century, says anyone outside China cannot influence the reincarnation process and only monasteries in China can apply for permission.
Experts and activists say the law is clearly aimed at excluding the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, from selecting reincarnated lamas or Living Buddhas - which form the core of Tibetan Buddhism's leadership.
And, they say, the law effectively paves the way for China to interfere in the future reincarnation of the 72 year-old Dalai Lama, who China regards as a "splittist".
John Powers, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism at Australia National University, says the law is "absurd" but at the same time, "chilling".
"They're [Chinese government] trying to exercise as much control as they possibly can over religious practices and over peoples' lives," he said. "It's not even just exercising control of the present life, they even trying to control future life and death. This sort of thing would only occur in a totalitarian government."
Communist China exercises strict control over all religion. For instance, millions of Chinese Catholics are allowed to worship only in the government-sanctioned Patriotic Church, which functions outside of the Vatican. The Patriotic Church appoints bishops in China without approval from the Pope.
Human rights organizations have long criticized China for religious repression and human rights abuses in Tibet.
In 1995, the Dalai Lama's chosen reincarnation of the Panchen Lama - the second holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism - was rejected by Beijing. Instead, China appointed its own Panchen Lama and detained the Dalai Lama's choice. But few Tibetans consider the Chinese Panchen Lama as a legitimate leader.
Lamas are often reborn to continue their good work. There are often many candidates of a lama's reincarnation, but only one will be recognized.
The Dalai Lama has said he will be reincarnated outside Tibet - raising the possibility of two Dalai Lamas in the future - a Chinese appointed one in Tibet and another in exile.
But Tenzin Norgay, a spokesman for the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala India - home of the Tibetan exile government, says Tibetans are not likely to accept a Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama.
"How could an atheist party be able to recognize the next Dalai Lama? You look into the sentiments of the Tibetan people, the Beijing appointed Panchen Lama does not have any respect," said Norgay. "So similarly even of this regulation comes into effect, if they choose a Dalai Lama of their own, it's not going to be of any use. Ultimately it should come from the respect being shown by the Tibetan people."
China says the new regulation aims to preserve social harmony - a reason Beijing often uses in situations involving ethnic, economic or political conflict. Beijing has been showering the region with economic projects to end poverty and isolation - including the high tech Beijing to Tibet railway, which opened last year.
But rights groups say Tibetans are feeling that their culture will be diluted because of this government-sponsored influx of Han Chinese into the region. This law is seen as even more threatening to the most fundamental aspect of Tibetan life - the spiritual realm.
More than 130,000 Tibetans live in exile. Many monks and nuns flee Tibet every year often via a treacherous hike in the Himalayas.
The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959, has given up demands for independence for Tibet but wants more autonomy for the region. Representatives of the Dalai Lama have held a series of informal talks with the Chinese government but no progress has been achieved on the issue.