Panchen Rinpoche’s Australian Visit April May 1986

30 years ago: Panchen Rinpoche comes to Australia

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When we first heard, improbably, that the Panchen Lama was coming to Australia, we didn’t really know what to do. It was 30 years ago, early 1986, and we were a small group, calling ourselves the Tibet Information Service (TIS), based largely in just one of Australia’s cities, trying since 1982 to help Australians hear the concerns of the Tibetans. As far as average Australians were concerned we might as well have been lobbying for the little green men of the planet Mars; that’s how far Tibet was from popular consciousness back then.

Remarkably, we somehow managed to arrange for the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama to speak directly to each other by phone, during that visit, for over an hour, with no minders present. At the time, we had no idea how historic that was. Only four years later, when HH Dalai Lama published a volume of autobiography, did we discover this had been a unique moment. It was the only time they ever managed to speak freely, according to the Dalai Lama’s 1990 autobiography, Freedom in Exile, though they did have two closely monitored conversations when the Panchen Lama was in Beijing. The Dalai Lama says: “However, while he was in Australia, he managed to give his escort the slip at a prearranged time and I spoke to him from West Germany. We were not able to speak for long, but it was enough to assure me that in his heart the Panchen Lama remained true to his religion, to his people and to his country.” (p.287)

How did a small group of Australians manage to do this? We didn’t really know what we were doing, but, as we discovered, nor did his Chinese minders, nor the Australian Parliament, the official host of his visit. If we succeeded, it is because they all bumbled as much, or more than we did. In hindsight, the only person who knew exactly what to do was the tenth Panchen Rinpoche himself.

So this is a story, not before told, of the only time China allowed the Panchen Lama out of China, apart from one visit to Nepal. The story is told now, exactly 30 years later, at the request of former Tibetan exile minister Kalon Tashi Wangdi, who, in retirement, is gathering documentation for future generations, and has graciously agreed that this can now be published here.

What should we do? All we knew was that a delegation of Chinese “parliamentarians”, members of the National People’s Congress, would tour Australia, as guests of the Australian Parliament, as a reciprocal follow up to a visit to China by Australian members of parliament. We knew only that one of the delegates was named Bainqen Erdeni, and we recognised this as Chokyi Gyaltsen, the tenth Panchen Rinpoche. No-one in the parliamentary protocol section had a clue who this unpronounceably pinyinised fellow was.

Should we draw attention to who he really was, not just the second-in-charge of an NPC delegation, but the highest lama remaining in Tibet? Should we ignore it, for fear of embarrassing him, playing it all down to give him quiet space to do his skilful negotiating work? Should we accuse China of using him to publicly legitimate China’s control over Tibet? Should we criticise Australian leaders for allowing Australia to be a platform for Chinese propaganda?

The itinerary of the tour, decided months in advance and published by the Australian Parliament as a pocketbook guide, was even more baffling. The NPC delegation was to spend almost two weeks in Australia, with only short periods in the major cities of Sydney, the capital Canberra, and Melbourne. The rest was to be spent sightseeing the coral reefs of tropical Queensland, inspecting sheep and cattle ranches and mid-sized factories making tools. It seemed more like a tour put together for a visiting chamber of commerce deputation.

Fortunately we had months to think it all through and prepare for various possibilities, enough time too for Nyima Sengpo, Chairman of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies to write to the Speaker of the Australian Parliament, and for Tibet supporters from Sydney to have audience with HH Dalai Lama in Dharamsala and receive his guidance.



Was the Panchen Lama himself, as some exile Tibetans unkindly put it, “just a fat businessman”? So little was known about him, especially about what he had been doing in the years since his release in 1978 from 14 years in prison for daring to criticise Mao’s great famine. We knew nothing about his courageous efforts to rebuild ruined monasteries and ensure that young reincarnate lamas got a proper education. Maybe he was coming to Australia to buy sheep? Or simply to eat them?

Those 14 years in prison and home detention were well known, but not the petition he sent to Mao in 1962, plainly listing the sufferings of the Tibetans at the hands of leftist zealots who caused famine. It was not until 1997 that this 70,000 character petition, escaped suppression and was published, in Chinese and English, in London.

We did know this was the first time he had been permitted to travel to a Western country, though not that it would be also his last, and that in three years he would have passed away. We also guessed that he and the Dalai Lama had few opportunities to talk directly to each other, without intermediaries and surveillance. So it seemed like a moment for us to set up a direct phone call. Luckily, in those days before the Internet, TIS had time to write an airmail letter to Gyalwa Rinpoche’s secretary, and in due course, weeks later, receive an airmail reply confirming it was a good idea, and that His Holiness would be in Germany on the day, with much more reliable phone lines.  Our chance to do so was in Melbourne, during a reception for the small Tibetan community, but it was at the end of the NPC’s 12 day Australian tour, and much could happen beforehand.

The decision TIS took was that above all, we should show respect for Panchen Rinpoche, as for any great lama, rather than confront him with demands that he denounce China; and that we would educate media to understand that he was not free to speak his mind. This was our attempt at some sort of middle way.

It was an uneasy middle path, separating religion from politics, avoiding speaking up too loudly for the suffering Tibetans, and there were Tibetans in Australia, and their supporters, who thought we were too low key.

TIS tried to ready itself for a wide range of eventualities, such as the prospect that China would parade the Panchen Lama as proof of freedom of religion in Tibet; even that Australian leaders, keen to get closer to China, might assist such a propaganda effort. Even back then Australia knew it had the full range of raw materials China needed, and was actively seeking to integrate the two economies.

So we prepared a Backgrounder information kit, explaining to Australians the delicate situation of the Panchen Lama, “who may not articulate the wishes of the six million Tibetans. That is the price he must pay for remaining in China, subject to the closest scrutiny. He is not free to speak of the continued sufferings of his people under an alien, deeply resented occupation.”

Whether any politicians found time to read four pages of background information is unclear, plus pages more of the most recent March 10 statement by the Dalai Lama,  and documentation on the actual situation in Tibet as Hu Yaobang’s reforms were fizzling out, and Tibetan frustration growing. All of this was unfamiliar to Australians, just getting used to the idea that Australia might be part of Asia. And the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was due to go to Beijing one week after the NPC delegation returned.

More pointed was a one-page TIS press release for distribution the day the NPC delegation arrived in Canberra on 5 May. Its headline was: “Who’s a Cat’s Paw Now?” This alluded to an accusation China had made that Australia was being duped by Vietnam, after Australia urged the Vietnamese who had overthrown the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime to help make a lasting peace in Cambodia. China, hostile to Vietnam and close to the Khmer Rouge, made use of a metaphor from an old European folk tale to accuse Australia of being gullible, doing the dirty work of others.

The TIS press release reminded Australian leaders that China has no real parliament, and if both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader welcome this group, they might be a cat’s paw for China. In Australia’s robust democracy, this would be considered a low key, even a polite criticism.



As the visit grew closer we wondered what China’s approach would be. Gradually this became clearer. On 22 April Australia’s most serious newspaper, the Financial Review, reported that “the Chinese are making the point that they want equal treatment to the Dalai Lama, who visited Australia in 1982.” The Australian government had no difficulty in deflecting that, as the Dalai Lama came to Australia at the invitation of lamas and Australian Buddhists, not as a guest of state; a distinction China found hard to understand.

By then, Tibetans had briefed Australian officials well, and the Financial Review reported that “the visit has placed Federal parliamentary officials in a quandary. There is no apparent precedent for such a visit being used for what appears to be strong propaganda purposes. Pressure is understood to have been applied from the Dalai Lama’s supporters for a lukewarm response.”

That article was almost the only media coverage of the entire visit,  which was indeed publicly neutral or lukewarm.

What China actually wanted was that Panchen Rinpoche be received by what China would call “personages of Australian religious circles”, with lots of photos taken, which could be used in China to show China’s liberal attitude. The Chinese government made little serious attempt to highlight the Panchen Lama’s standing, and left it up to the Australian parliament to make the arrangements. This included an approach to the Buddhist Studies Department at the Australian National University in Canberra, which, on being told China expected Panchen Rinpoche would be accorded parallel status to the Dalai Lama, politely refused to assist. Likewise the Buddhist Society in Canberra declined to get involved.

In Sydney, Panchen Rinpoche, billed as “a leader of Tibetan Lamaism”, was due to address the Australian Council of Churches on 30 April, the most public of his talks. He spoke there in general terms about the need for peace, equality, compassion and fraternity. Australian media found nothing to report. Media were interested only in a scandal over whether a judge of the High Court had been corrupt.



Australian lack of interest, our refusal to play a simple back/white, bad/good dualism, and the awkwardness of Chinese diplomats all combined to ensure Panchen Rinpoche seldom had to publicly embrace positions he did not believe in. After it was all over, David Templeman, of the TIS, noted “our almost free hand in most situations as they arose. It was almost within our power to completely muzzle the statements of the delegation (e.g. the speech of Panchen Rinpoche to the Australian Council of Churches). The score was always well in our favour and at no stage in the visit did we feel that it was out of our hands. Our confidence grew as we realised how thorough we had been in laying the preparatory groundwork, the wide range of valuable contacts in places of influence we had and how good the media were to us.”

In hindsight, the help and sympathy TIS elicited at every turn reflects well on a simpler Australia, less obsessive about security and border protection, more inclined to side with community voices against powerful governments. Australia was not yet earning billions from selling raw materials to China, and sympathy for the small against the big was an Australian tradition, much less so today.

Thus, on the last of the three days the delegation had in Canberra, a lunch with Panchen Rinpoche had been arranged for key Australian political reporters, normally preoccupied with domestic scandals, and TIS wanted to find out who was attending, to ensure they had the TIS information pack, complete with appropriate questions to ask. Trying, through the front door, to find out who had been invited got us nowhere, but through a back door we got their names and made sure they were briefed on the sensitivities of the situation

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