In 2007, I encountered an unusual news story: the Chinese government had decreed that it would be illegal for Buddhist lamas to reincarnate without government permission. Having already encountered news stories about the Dongzhou Buddha Council, officially described as "a superstitious organization in charge of divine activities in Dongzhou," I started to imagine a special unit of the People's Liberation Army, trained in doctrine and religion, then killed so that they could infiltrate the Celestial Bureaucracy and ensure that nobody reincarnated without authorization.*
This week, postmortem tensions rose again, as the Dalai Lama suggested that he may decide not to reincarnate at all. The Chinese government is apparently quite unhappy with this, and says that this is not up to him: "Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China," according to Party official Zhu Weiqun.
If you ever thought that government gets too involved in your affairs, you ain't got nothing
on the Dalai Lama.
In case it isn't clear, what Zhu is really saying is that the Dalai Lama should have no choice in whether he has a successor; he will
have a successor, and that successor will
be chosen by Beijing, and that successor will
support Chinese official policy in Tibet. There are two things the Chinese government is perpetually terrified of: that regions which it considers "its own" (such as Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and for all I can tell also Japan, Australia, and Poland) might openly reject its rule, making its inability to control everyone it wants to manifest and exposing it to collapse; and that a religious or political movement within the country would lead to revolution. Religious movements are particularly worrisome because historically, many of China's biggest revolutions have been driven by the rise of sects like the Yellow Turbans; political movements tend to be driven by dissatisfied high officials with strong regional ties. For similar reasons, they work hard to suppress any notion of regional identity, suppressing local languages and festivals, and moving around populations to create new facts on the ground; this is why there has been a huge (government-sponsored) Han migration into Xinjiang, previously ethnically Uighur, in the past several years.
This is also why you will make enemies by referring to Chinese "languages;" officially, everything from Mandarin to Cantonese to Hakka is a single language, despite being mutually incomprehensible. The official argument is that they share a writing system, but as any linguist will explain to you, written languages are simply additional languages which people speak, not an intrinsic part of a spoken language; written and spoken English differ far more than you might guess. But suggesting that there is not a single Chinese language might imply that there is not a single Chinese people, and so perhaps there should not be a single Chinese state.
To be fair, there is some good reason behind this beyond a simple will to power: when Chinese governments fall, it historically leads to spectacularly bloody civil wars. The Communist takeover (including its various "cleanups" like the Great Leap Forward) cost between 30 and 70 million lives, by most estimates;** the previous uprising, the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64, killed nearly 20 million, a figure all the more alarming when you realize that it was done mostly with farm implements. It was (by far) the deadliest war in human history at the time, and only the World Wars have surpassed it.
Of course, that's a fancy way of saying that by guaranteeing that any succession to you will have to be incredibly violent, you create a certain kind of incentive to let you stay in power. The overall logic of this, and how it might be applied elsewhere in life, is left as an exercise for the reader.
* Several years later, this turned into a major plot point of an RPG I was running. The lama which the PC's were looking for turned out to have gone into hiding; he had died, and while an "official" reincarnation had been installed in his place, it quickly became clear that this wasn't the real deal; in fact, this special unit was still looking for the real incarnation, hoping to extract key information from him. The players ultimately found him in the countryside, having reincarnated as a Bactrian camel. When pressed as to why he chose this unusual hiding place, he replied in English: "Camel is sort of like lama, no?"
It is possible that I may have set up that entire year-long plot arc just so I could use that line.
** See e.g. http://necrometrics.com/20c5m.htm#Mao
for a collection of estimates by different authors.