BEIJING, March 12, 2010 -- The son of serfs, a soldier and a politician -- Padma Choling's past is rooted in the physical world of soil, sweat and grit.
But since being elected governor of Tibet Autonomous Region two months ago, his main turn in the international spotlight was his response to a question on matters spiritual.
Taking questions from journalists from across the world in Beijing on Sunday, he said, "The Dalai Lama is still alive, let's talk about his reincarnation when he dies."
Padma Choling, deputy to the 11th National People's Congress (NPC) and also chairman of the regional government of the Tibet Autonomous Region, answers questions during a meeting with journalists at the press center of the Third Session of the 11th NPC in Beijing, China, March 7, 2010. (Xinhua/Yuan Man)
Despite brushing off the issue at a press conference on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress, Padma Choling denies speculation that he is a "hardliner" and says he should not be judged on his 17 years of service in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
"Who said the army can only train soldiers to be tough? It also showed me the deepest affection among human beings," he tells Xinhua in an exclusive interview.
Born into a family of serfs in northeast Tibet's Dengqen County in October 1951, his parents endowed him with hope from the outset: in Tibetan, Padma means "lotus" and Choling means "immense beneficence."
Tibet was a feudal society under theocratic rule until 1959, when an armed rebellion was foiled and social reforms were launched by the central government.
"After the democratic reform, I was able to go to school in the county seat far from my home," Padma Choling recalls.
"The school had very poor teaching conditions and had no dining hall. I could not go home for lunch at noon, so I asked for food and water from local residents.
"I still remember all those who helped me, and I am always grateful to others, as is the tradition of the Tibetan people."
He joined the army in the northwestern Qinghai Province in December 1969, when he was only 18.
"I was the only soldier of the Tibetan ethnic group in the company, but all the other soldiers of Han ethnic group treated me as a brother and took care of me in every way," he says.
"They helped me learn Chinese and other knowledge, and let me stand in the front of the queue to get the best food at dinner times -- although everybody actually wanted to eat first at that time of food shortages."
Padma Choling spent half a year in Qinghai before being transferred to Tibet, where he took part in a strenuous training march in the snow and extreme cold, which he will never forget.
"We kept marching for a whole week, and I came to understand brotherhood during that period."
Padma Choling was thinner and younger than most of the other soldiers.
"When I got tired, I could not carry the heavy kit, except for my rifle. So everybody else, including the squad leader, took turns to carry my kit for me.
"It was a heavy burden for them, too, as they were not accustomed to the plateau environment and all had altitude sickness," he remembers.
"It was with the People's Liberation Army that I started to know the Communist Party of China (CPC)."
To Padma Choling, Tibetan people will always feel indebted to those who do help them.
"Tibetans are grateful to the CPC, because the CPC changed their destiny. Tibetans are also thankful to the people of all ethnic groups across the nation, because their assistance in building Tibet helped improve the lives of Tibetans."
He left the PLA in 1986 to become an official in the Tibet autonomous regional government.
He was elected vice-chairman of the regional government in 2003, and replaced Legqog as deputy secretary of CPC Tibet autonomous regional committee in January this year.
After being elected chairman of the regional government on Jan.15, Padma Choling felt the pressures of office more than ever before.
"The new position means a heavy responsibility. I must be responsible for the Tibetan people, for Tibetan development, for ecological conservation, for ethnic solidarity and for national unity. I cannot be without pressure," he says.
His most daunting task is to further develop Tibet's economy and improve living standards.
"Meanwhile, we must resolutely fight secessionist forces led by the Dalai Lama to protect the core interests of the Chinese nation," he says.
"It is a great honor for me to serve the Tibetan people in this new position. I will do my best to perform my duty and give the Tibetan people a satisfying answer."
He spends much of his free time looking after his octogenarian mother and chatting with her. He also reads books, newspapers and the Internet to learn more about the world.
"My favorite TV programs are sports. Basketball, football.... I have interests in all those sports. I am fond of watching the European Championship."