According to the Chinese government, when Tenzen Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, dies, it has the sole right to chose his reincarnation.
"The Dalai Lama continues to proclaim his reincarnation is a 'purely religious matter' and something only he can decide," ethnic and religious chair to the Chinese Parliamentary Zhu Weiqun wrote in the state-controlled Global Times. "But he has no way to compel admiration from the faithful."
"He's been proclaiming he'll reincarnate as a foreigner, as a bee, as a 'mischievous blond girl,' or even proposing a living reincarnation or an end to reincarnation."
Gyatso was named Dalai Lama in 1950 at the age of 15, and has been in exile since 1959 at the onset of the unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against the Chinese government. In recent years, Gyatso has been frank about his opinions on the Dalai Lama's role in modern Buddhism and, by extension, Tibetan autonomy.
"We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama," Gyatso said in 2014. "Tibetan Buddhism is not dependent on one individual. We have a very good organisational structure with highly trained monks and scholars."
Gyatso's stance on whether or not he will or should be reincarnated is inexorably tied to the fact that previous successors to his title have almost all been chosen from within Tibet's geographical borders.
Traditional Tibetan Buddhism holds that once a sitting Dalai Lama dies, their spiritual consciousness is transferred into a new body, keeping the cycle of reincarnation moving forward. In the past, this process of reincarnation is followed up by an extensive search for the new Dalai Lama that's carried out by a group of high-ranking Lamas and the Tibetan government.
Given that Gyatso and his followers who believe in Tibetan sovereignty are currently living in exile, it puts them in something of a complicated position when it comes to keeping with religious tradition.
In 1960, Gyatso oversaw the creation of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, which, while not officially recognized by any country, has become the governmental body that those who support Tibet's independence most often deal with. The TPiE owes much of its perceived legitimacy to its connection to the Dalai Lama and Gyatso's comments about his reincarnation can be read as a political move to further advocate for a free Tibet.
Zhu's comments about China's right to choose the next Dalai Lama came just hours after TPiE polls showed that current Chief of the Cabinet Lobsang Sangay was likely to be elected for another term, further solidifying the body's presence.