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Beijing - A Tibetan spiritual leader picked by China's rulers is ready for a larger religious role, an official said on Thursday, though he could not say whether the Panchen Lama would be given a political post.
"We can see...that (the Panchen Lama) is learning and making progress and has established a high reputation among most of the Tibetan people," foreign ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao told journalists.
"I believe that he could play a bigger role and make greater contributions to the religious undertakings of Tibet, but as to whether he will be chosen for some political position, I have no information."
His comments come amid speculation that the Panchen Lama, nominally Tibet's second highest spiritual leader following the Dalai Lama, could be named a top legislator at China's annual parliament session that opens next week.
The atheist communist government enthroned him in 1995, rejecting another boy selected by the exiled Dalai Lama in a move that defied long-held Buddhist traditions.
The Dalai Lama's choice, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, immediately disappeared from public view, aged six, and is believed to have been under a form of house arrest ever since.
On his 18th birthday in January, Beijing's Panchen Lama met with China's parliamentary head, Wu Bangguo, and was told to take up the task of melding Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese-style socialism, Chinese press reports said.
"I hope you deeply study the spirit of the 17th Communist Party Congress, respect the party's policy on religious work and explore a road suitable for both Tibetan Buddhism and socialism," Wu told the Panchen Lama.
China sent troops into Tibet in 1950 and officially "liberated" it a year later.
The Dalai Lama later fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising and established a government-in-exile in Dharamsala. He and his followers have been at odds with the government in Beijing ever since.