The Dalai Lama yesterday warned that Tibet's next Buddhist spiritual leader would be chosen abroad if he dies in exile, and that Tibetans may hold a referendum before he dies to decide whether a new system of leadership would better serve them in their struggle for self-determination.
The 72-year-old said he was looking at "different methods or ways" of selecting a successor after nearly five decades in exile, drawing a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
"If my death comes when we are still in a refugee status then logically my reincarnation will come outside Tibet," the Dalai Lama said in an interview restricted to three journalists.
According to centuries of tradition, high-ranking monks in Tibet choose the Dalai Lama's reincarnation after the incumbent's death.
Instead, he suggested his successor could be selected by election, by seniority or could take over in the traditional way, but outside Tibet.
This would head off plans by the Chinese Communist Party to select a successor.
China recently said that living Tibetan Buddhas needed permission from the government to be reincarnated.
"China, of course, will appoint someone else," he said in response to a contention that naming a successor before dying would disrespect Buddhist traditions.
The comments drew an immediate rebuke from Beijing.
"The reincarnation of the living Buddha is a unique way of succession of Tibetan Buddhism and follows relatively complete religious rituals and historical conventions," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "The Dalai's remarks obviously violated the religious rituals and historical conventions."
The statement was the same as Beijing's initial reaction to the Dalai Lama's comments last week in Japan when he said he was open to naming his successor before he died.
However, the Tibetan leader went further yesterday.
He said the concept was not unprecedented in Tibetan Buddhism, noting that one of his teachers in Lhasa had his successor named while he was still alive.
But he said that "a serious succession process has not yet started," and that "according to my regular medical check-up I am good for another few decades."
Yesterday, the Dalai Lama said Tibet was becoming the victim of "demographic aggression" because an influx of Han Chinese into cities such as Lhasa had lead to a "kind of cultural genocide."
The Dalai Lama also said a succession plan would include popular opinion from Tibetans living in China and the exile community.
"Yes, oh yes, it's possible," he said of a referendum. "When my physical [condition] becomes weak and serious preparations are made for death then that should happen."
"Should the Tibetan people in the hundreds of thousands like to continue with the Dalai Lama, [it] is important," he said.
"I want to make it very clear: We are not seeking separation or independence," he said. "We need money. We need modernization. From the PRC [People's Republic of China] we get much benefit."