China deciding the Dalai Lama's successor would be like Cuba's Fidel Castro "selecting the next pope," said the political leader of Tibet's exiled government. Lobsang Sangay's criticism follows insistence by the Chinese Communist Party that it alone will decide the reincarnation of the 80-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader. The feud
has cast doubt over the future of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule — and Tibetan Buddhism — with the Dalai Lama suggesting the lineage of 14 lamas may end with his death. In response, the atheist Chinese government has repeatedly insisted it will manage the process. Sangay dismissed China's interference in the reincarnation process, warning of worsening abuses across Tibet
during a talk with the rights group Freedom House in Washington D.C. on Feb. 11, the last day of Tibet's New Year holiday. "The situation inside Tibet continues to remain grim under repression and oppression, with no hope of improvement in the near future," Tibet's political leader said in a video address. His assessment was echoed by Freedom House in its recent annual report on worldwide liberties, which ranked Tibet second worst only to Syria on political and civil rights in 2015 — far behind the rest of China and even North Korea. "The Chinese authorities have had difficulty quelling popular reverence for the Dalai Lama," it said. The issue of the Dalai Lama's reincarnation appears to have driven a recent escalation in Chinese repression as the aging Tibetan spiritual leader continues treatment for a prostate condition at a clinic in Minnesota. Authorities set a deadline of Feb. 2 for portraits of the Dalai Lama to be removed in some areas of Tibet. Beijing maintains the "Dalai Lama clique" was responsible for harsh serfdom before communist forces "liberated" Tibet in 1950. Last week, authorities reportedly arrested two senior Tibetan monks on suspicion of leading a rare mass prayer which called for the Dalai Lama's health to recover at a gathering in Sichuan province on Jan. 25. China sees containment of the Dalai Lama's influence and control of his reincarnation as the end game in crushing Tibetan resistance after more than 70 years of rule in the Himalayan region. The Dalai Lama's younger brother Tenzin Choegyal told the New York Times
in December the exile movement and its leaders "are finished once his holiness is gone." Rights groups said Chinese authorities have recently punished the families of Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest of Chinese rule — some 143 people since 2009. U.S. congressmen James McGovern and Joseph Pitts sent a letter
to the Chinese Embassy in early February complaining some Tibetans had received long prison terms and even death sentences after they "aided" or "incited" self-immolations. "By criminalizing and convicting relatives and friends of self-immolators who have sacrificed their lives in their quest to exercise their fundamental human rights, the Chinese government has reached a new low in its treatment of Tibetans," said Matteo Mecacci
, president of the International Campaign for Tibet based in Washington D.C.