Just as Beijing prepares to bask in the glow of international acceptance of a rising, peaceful China, the violence in Lhasa may result in the spotlight falling instead on a China that suppresses demonstrations by Tibetan monks, that cracks down on human rights advocates and that is associated with the world's most recalcitrant regimes.
Back in 2001, when Beijing won the bid to host the Olympic Games, there were rapturous celebrations in the country as it looked forward to finally regaining its proper place in the world. Now, however, there is a danger that the whole thing may go horribly wrong and that the Olympics will magnify the country's failings even more than its achievements.
Right now, it looks as if China is going to crack down hard on Tibetans who beat up Han Chinese March 14 while destroying their businesses and torching police cars. The Chinese authorities have already pronounced "the Dalai clique" guilty of the "well-planned sabotage in Lhasa."
China has closed off Tibet to foreign visitors and is denying requests from foreign journalists to visit the region. Hong Kong reporters there have been told to leave. It appears that Beijing is preparing to carry out the Chinese saying of "closing the door in order to beat the dog" without any witnesses.
Actually, China should realize that foreign correspondents are not necessarily hostile and their dispatches convey credibility. For example, the British journalist James Miles, the only foreign correspondent legitimately in Lhasa, wrote favorably of the behavior of Chinese forces, saying of Lhasa's old Tibetan quarter, which saw two days of anti-Chinese rioting: "So far, in this part of the city, the security forces appear to have acted with relative restraint."
The Chinese government has been injecting money into the Tibetan economy, including the construction of a railroad to link the region with major cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The idea was that a rising standard of living will lessen Tibetan opposition to Chinese rule.
However, the attacks on Chinese businesses suggest that many Tibetans feel that only the new migrants have benefited from the improving economy rather than the indigenous population. This could be similar to the situation in Macau, where huge injections of capital and the opening of casinos have resulted in inflation and little benefit to the locals.
While the Chinese government has reported 13 civilians killed by demonstrators, rumors have spread that 80 or 100 Tibetans have died at the hands of security forces. Such rumors, if untrue, must be nipped in the bud.
China must be keenly aware that repression in Tibet could well result in calls to boycott the Olympics. Already, some athletes are reported to be considering such a boycott. This is a time for Chinese leaders to be creative. The object should be to defuse the Tibet bomb and at the same time to restore trust in the Chinese government.
One way is to invite eminent international personalities to form a blue-ribbon panel to go to Tibet and to see for themselves what the situation is like. Of course, for reasons of sovereignty, China cannot let foreigners decide on policy but that is no reason why an advisory body cannot be created.
Such a panel will inject credibility into the handling of the Tibet issue. Once it is set up, pressure would have been removed from the Chinese government and the world can refocus its attention on the Olympics. While the members have to be carefully chosen, there are plenty of retired statesmen who are people of integrity and can be counted on to be fair and objective unless, of course, China fears international scrutiny of its record in Tibet.
After all, there is no reason for Beijing to be fearful of Tibet's secession. No country in the world recognizes the Tibetan government-in-exile and even India, which provides a home to the Dalai Lama, has reaffirmed its position that Tibet is part of China.
In 1959, after the Tibetan uprising that led to the flight of the Dalai Lama to India, Chairman Mao Zedong predicted that, in the 21st century, things would have changed so much that the Dalai would want to return. Before that can happen, however, Mao's successors must create the necessary conditions.