HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Tibetan youth named by Beijing as the 11th Panchen Lama but reviled by many Tibetans as a fake made his first trip outside mainland China on Thursday as he is groomed to become the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama dies.
Gyaltsen Norbu, 22, was selected as a boy by officially atheist Beijing in 1995 as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism in its drive to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans.
Tibet's current spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had announced his own choice of a six-year-old boy, who was taken away by authorities and has since disappeared from public view, creating a crisis of legitimacy for devout Tibetans.
China reviles the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, as a separatist. The Dalai Lama says he is merely seeking more autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.
China has gradually exposed its Panchen Lama in public roles in the hope he will achieve the respect commanded by the 76-year-old Dalai Lama among Tibetans and globally.
He took no questions on Thursday at a Buddhist forum in the former British colony of Hong Kong. He stayed away from controversy, mostly using esoteric terms to talk about Buddhism and its emphasis on inner peace to achieve social harmony.
"Current society values external science and technology over the inner sciences," he said in Mandarin.
"The three vices contaminate the self. The sins spread and (spiritual) corruption becomes rampant. The body loses balance and the environment is tainted."
Over the last year, there has been a wave of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting against Beijing's control over Tibetan areas of China.
Activists say China violently stamps out religious freedom and culture in Tibet. China rejects the criticism, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.
Underscoring Beijing's sensitivities about the Panchen Lama's trip, he is getting round-the-clock police protection, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Bodyguards Bureau is providing him the protection accorded to officials holding a rank equivalent to a vice-premier, sources told Reuters, requesting anonymity.
"What compels Beijing to take this unprecedented measure appears to be the mounting number of Tibetan self-immolations," said Lin Chong-Pin, a veteran China watcher at Taiwan's private Tamkang University.
The 11th Panchen Lama spoke in Tibetan when he made his debut on the world stage at the first World Buddhist Forum in China in 2006 and in English when he graced the second in 2009.
Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950. After the Dalai Lama fled, the 10th Panchen Lama stayed on and was initially seen as a collaborator, but it later emerged that he spent over a decade either in prison or under house arrest for criticizing Beijing.
He was freed in 1977 and politically rehabilitated the following year. He died in 1989.
(Reporting by Sisi Tang, and Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)