BEIJING (Reuters) - A youth named by China as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism but reviled by many Tibetans as a fake has pledged his patriotism, Chinese state media said on Tuesday, amid a year of sensitive anniversaries for Tibet.
Gyaltsen Norbu was selected as a boy by officially atheist Beijing in 1995 as the 11th Panchen Lama in China's 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 vanished from public view.
This year not only marks the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of the six-year-old boy but also the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 following an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.
During a seven-day tour of the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, which borders what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region and is home to many ethnic Tibetans, China's Panchen Lama visited temples, met monks, blessed followers and lead prayers, the official Xinhua news agency said.
"The Panchen Lama pledged to uphold patriotism and make contributions to national unity, ethnic solidarity, religious harmony and social stability," the news agency said.
"He called on all Chinese Tibetan-Buddhist followers to love the country, make efforts to benefit the people and practice benevolence to promote social development and protect national interests," it added.
China has gradually exposed its Panchen Lama in public roles in the hope he will achieve the respect commanded by the Dalai Lama among Tibetans and globally, and in 2012 he made his first trip outside mainland China when he visited Hong Kong.
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 more than 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.
Activists say China has violently tried to stamp out religious freedom and culture in Tibet. China rejects the criticism, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.
Tibet remains under heavy security and in recent years foreign media has been all but banned from visiting.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel