The officially atheist Chinese Communist party has found itself in the uncomfortable position of defending the spiritual belief of reincarnation as it once again engages its arch-nemesis, the Dalai Lama, in a hopeless battle for international public opinion.

It takes true courage to pit yourself against the elderly, smiling embodiment of peace and enlightenment in a global popularity contest but China’s ruling Communists have proven their valour and persistence in this regard time and time again.

The latest Communist outburst in defence of ancient Buddhist tradition was a reaction to a speech given by the 75-year-old Dalai Lama (or “wolf in monk’s robes” as Beijing likes to call him) in which he questioned whether his successor should be a reincarnation of himself.

This question is more than just an arcane religious matter because China has promulgated a law that requires all reincarnations of “living Buddhas” – as senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism are known – to be approved by the Communist party. By mixing the spiritual and the profane through this imaginative use of jurisprudence, China’s rulers claim they will have the final say on who replaces the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the vast mountainous region that China annexed in 1951.

“The reincarnation of living Buddhas is a form of succession special to Tibetan Buddhism, and the policies of freedom of religious belief observed by China naturally include respecting and protecting this form of succession in Tibetan Buddhism,” a Chinese government spokesman said last week. “The reincarnation of any living Buddha, including the Dalai Lama, should respect the religious rules, historical standards and state laws and regulations.”

An earlier battle over reincarnation shows why this topic matters so much to all sides. In 1995, after the Dalai Lama named a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Chinese government placed the boy and his family under house arrest and named their own Panchen Lama in his place. That replacement remains in the role to this day but many Tibetans spurn him as an imposter.

In the middle of this latest battle, China’s state media rode into the fray to hurl a few well-aimed insults. The Dalai Lama “does not mind being used, from time to time, as a cat’s paw by some westerners with mean motives to put pressure on China”, thundered Xinhua, the government’s official newswire. “Like a has-been star, he fears the loss of popularity, a personal loss that does no harm to his fellow Tibetans, but would certainly announce the eventual failure of his separatist attempt.”

In the other corner, the smiling old monk just looks on passively as the promoters of China’s global “soft power” shoot themselves in the foot again.

Scandal in the city

Speaking of image management, it has been a very bad couple of weeks for the Chinese city of Luoyang, in the overpopulated heartland province of Henan. The former ancient capital of China, with a population of 1.5m people, has been hit by a series of food safety scandals, murders, financial scams, corruption cases, kidnappings and the arrest of a government official who allegedly kept six women locked in a dungeon under his house for nearly two years. Li Hao, a 34-year-old employee of the city’s quality supervision bureau, is accused of kidnapping the women and keeping them as sex slaves before eventually killing two of them when they fought back.

Ji Xuguang, the journalist who broke the grisly story, has accused local authorities of trying to cover up the crime and says he was interrogated and threatened by officials who told him he had revealed a “state secret”, a charge that carries very heavy penalties in China.

Mr Ji was in Luoyang to investigate the murder of another local journalist, who was killed after he exposed a local “gutter oil” factory that illegally collected and resold cooking oil collected from gutters outside restaurants.

Some commentators in China have speculated that officials in Luoyang were especially eager to avoid bad publicity from the string of outrageous scandals in their city because they are in the process of bidding for a national “civilised city” award.

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