Police violence against last week's protests in Tibet put a harsh light on China's claim of a "peaceful rise" to global prominence. But then the riots by the Dalai Lama's followers also reveal frustration at his call for nonviolent resistance against Chinese rule. Which way will resolve Tibet's uneasy status at the roof of the world?
The protests began peacefully enough. Last Monday in the capital, Lhasa, about 300 monks used an anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising – the one that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India – to demonstrate against the imprisonment of some fellow monks. When a few monks were hurt and arrested, more protests followed. That led to major street riots Friday and protests in other parts of Tibet.
As many as 80 people may have been killed – a slaughter that begins to approach the killings during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests in Beijing.
By Sunday, Chinese leaders had effectively imposed martial law on the region. The Dalai Lama called for an outside investigation into what he calls "cultural genocide" of Tibet's way of life, especially suppression of Buddhist practices.
Coming months before the Olympics in Beijing, this heavy hand against freedom protests has seriously compromised China's coming-out party on the world stage. Troops may still be in Lhasa's streets even as athletes are winning medals in Beijing.
Chinese leaders need to return to unconditional talks with the Dalai Lama. He has shown extreme patience for decades, even letting go of his demand for independence in favor of "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet. Nonviolent means can find a nonviolent response.
As the spiritual leader of Tibet (and a Nobel Peace Prize winner), the Dalai Lama says he has sympathy for the street protesters. Even within China, Tibetans are treated as second-class citizens, with stiffer limits on human rights than in other regions. Officials have usurped the Buddhist hierarchy and spread untruths about the Dalai Lama. But it is the campaign to flood Tibet with ethnic Han Chinese, especially after the building of a railroad to Tibet two years ago, that has created new resentment at the skewed benefits given to these new immigrants.
Tibetans are losing faith in the Dalai Lama's approach, and fear that when he dies they will have no leader. His call for a probe of conditions in Tibet needs a positive response from Europe and the United States if his restive people are to follow his peace prescriptions. Without a return to nonviolent means, Tibet could someday go the way of Kosovo, with violence leading to some sort of Western intervention.
In ironic timing, China agreed last week to resume talks with the United States about human rights issues. And in the island nation of Taiwan the people are leaning in a March election toward rejecting the approach of the outgoing president to move toward an official declaration of independence – an approach that has provoked missile threats from China.
Beijing must be tested to see if it is now in a mood to be generous to Tibet. China can be given another chance to show it will use peaceful means to assure freedom in Tibet. Time is running short and trust is running thin.