Dalai Lama reincarnation China
Tibet's spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama. Chinese government officials will decide whether he is reincarnated, officials announced this week, in what is seen as a bid to seize control of a position that commands huge respect in restive Tibet. Getty Images

China's Communist Party government will decide if the Dalai Lama is reincarnated, officials said this week, reacting to an announcement from the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader that he may be the last of his line.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that their leaders are reincarnated after death, with the current Dalai Lama being the 14th incarnation of the faith's leading figure. China, however, brands the spiritual leader a violent separatist, who encourages the use of force to challenge China's rule, and encourages protesters to self-immolate.

Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee, a body that advises China's parliament, told reporters Wednesday that “decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China.”

Zhu's anger was sparked by comments the Dalai Lama made in an interview with the BBC last year, in which he suggested that it would be better to end the line of succession than to allow the Chinese government to take control of it.

“There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama,” he said.

Zhu said that these comments amounted to “a [religious] betrayal of the succession of Dalai Lamas in Tibetan Buddhism.”

Zhu's comments came during the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress, the country's legislature, which is effectively a rubber-stamp body in the one-party state.

Earlier this week, Tibet regional governor Padma Choling, who is appointed by China's Communist Party, also lashed out at the Dalai Lama.

"If he says no reincarnation, then no reincarnation? Impossible. Nobody in Tibetan Buddhism would agree to that. We must respect history, respect and not profane Tibetan Buddhism," Choling said.

However, the ability of China's government to effectively take control of the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders is highly dubious, according to experts.

“It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next pope and all the Catholics should follow.’ That is ridiculous,” Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile told Reuters. “It’s none of Padma Choling or any of the Communist Party’s business, mainly because Communism believes in atheism and religion being poisonous.”

In addition, Robert Barnett, director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University, told the New York Times that the Dalai Lama's comments were “reminding the Chinese that, from his perspective and the perspective of probably nearly all Tibetans, the Chinese don’t really have a credible role in deciding these things.”

Despite the tenuous grasp China may have on choosing a credible successor to the Dalai Lama, the country has had some success in curbing his popularity with international leaders, who are increasingly keen to develop economic and cultural ties with China.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to cancel a planned 2013 visit to China after being told he would be denied meetings with senior officials, as a punishment over his meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012. He has since tried to distance the U.K. from the Dalai Lama, in a bid to reaffirm the relationship between his country and China.

In addition, Pope Francis declined a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012, citing the “delicate situation,” his church faces in China.

The 14th Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959, following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.