OXFORD, England (REUTERS) - The Dalai Lama said on Monday more research was needed to settle the fate of the man he named as the Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, who vanished two decades ago but is said by the Chinese to be living a normal life.
Gendun Choekyi Nyima, now 26, disappeared shortly after he was declared by the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama when he was six years old.
His fate, which is just one area of contention between China and the Dalai Lama over Tibet, continues to be a deep concern to many Tibetans and he remains one of China's most zealously guarded state secrets.
A senior Chinese official said earlier this month Gendun Choekyi Nyima was "being educated, growing up healthily and does not want to be disturbed".
The Chinese Communist Party has long maintained that Gendun Choekyi Nyima is not the real Panchen Lama, and in 1995, the government selected Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama.
The Chinese government sees the appointment of the next Dalai Lama as key to consolidating state control over Tibet, where separatist movements have flared since the 1950s, and to undermining the present Dalai Lama's influence.
"I think the Chinese government is more concerned with the Dalai Lama institution than myself," the Dalai Lama said on Monday at a news conference at Oxford University.
The Dalai Lama acknowledged reports on Gendun Choekyi Nyima, but said evidence was needed to make them credible.
"Some friends say that my Panchen Lama is still alive (...) and he has also had the opportunity to make a family," he said.
But he added: "We need more research. Unless we do the research, (it's) no use to make a comment like that."
The 80-year-old Dalai Lama fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. Beijing says he is a violent separatist but the Buddhist monk denies espousing violence and says he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet.
He has not met British prime minister David Cameron during this visit, which comes a month before Chinese president Xi Jinping is due to make his first official state visit to Britain.
A meeting between Mr Cameron and the Dalai Lama in 2013 triggered a diplomatic spat between Britain and China.