The latest Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule has captured world sympathy and horribly embarrassed China's government just as Beijing has been pulling out all the stops preparing for its summer Olympic extravaganza.
But is there anything the world community can do besides issuing more platitudes?
First, some questions.
Is Tibet historically part of China, as Beijing claims? Yes and no. Tibet was spiritually linked to China from about 1370 in a "priest-ruler" relationship. Tibet's Lamaist Buddhist theocracy recognized the ultimate temporal power of China's emperor, while the emperor recognized Lhasa's spiritual primacy and total autonomy. Lhasa became the Vatican for the Mongol Empire and its successor, China's Ming Empire.
In 1913, while China was in chaos, Tibet, backed by the British Empire, declared independence. So it remained until October 1950, when the People's Army invaded Tibet and declared it "reunited" to China. A year earlier, Chinese troops had invaded and crushed the independent Republic of East Turkistan -- today called Xinjiang -- whose Turkic-Mongol Uighurs, long fought Chinese rule and Han Chinese immigration.
The world laments for the fashionable cause of Tibetans, but utterly ignores their northern neighbours, the Uighurs. After 2001, the Bush administration even branded Muslim Uighur resistance movements as "terrorists."
Second, the true number of Tibetans. China has obscured census figures. When I met with the Dalai Lama, who inspired my book, War at the Top of the World -- which is in part about Tibet -- he told me there were over seven million Tibetans. About three million are in Tibet proper, and the rest in the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai, to which protests spread this week.
A primary cause of the Tibetan "intifada" is continuing settlement of Han Chinese. After what I call "ethnic inundation," ethnic Chinese settlers now outnumber Tibetans. The same process of inundation occurred in Inner Mongolia, whose people are ethnically close to Tibetans.
Ironically, China condemns Israel for colonizing the West Bank with Jewish settlers while China does the same thing in Tibet.
But China also has uplifted Tibet from frightful poverty and superstition, brought education, hospitals, electricity, roads, and ended widespread serfdom. Last year, a remarkable new high altitude rail line linked Lhasa to Beijing.
When I last visited Tibet, people came up and begged me with tears in their eyes for a photo of their beloved exiled Dalai Lama. Beijing furiously brands him a "splittist." I saw anti-Chinese demonstrations in Lhasa, and regiments of Chinese paramilitary police and soldiers. Resistance has simmered for decades. Now, the pot has boiled over.
In contrast to past heavy-handed repression, China has been fairly restrained so far in suppressing the rebellion. The uprising seems to be abating, but if it gets out of hand, China will use much more force.
Another danger: China's giant rival, India, would dearly like to drive China from the strategic Tibetan Plateau, which looms over northern India. China has built a score of air and missile bases in Tibet threatening India. Growing unrest could tempt India to back Tibetan resistance. So might the U.S. China would react with fury.
So what can the world do? The EU calls for boycotting the Olympic opening ceremonies. Others demand trade sanctions.
Such overt actions won't work. China will never voluntarily relinquish control of Tibet. No one is going to tell China what to do.
The best solution is the Dalai Lama's: Beijing restores the old "priest-ruler" relationship. Tibet recognizes China's political mastery, China accepts Tibet's real internal autonomy, ceases Han immigration, and allows the Dalai Lama to return.
As globalization plays an ever larger role in China's economy, it needs to protect its good image abroad. Stomping on Tibet is counterproductive.
Beijing should respond with patience, and accord the Dalai Lama, a fierce pacifist and great soul, the same reverence and respect as did the Mongol and Ming emperors. The world needs to press China to do so, but discreetly, and with tact.
Eric Margolis writes a regular column for The Toronto Sun.
© 2008 The Toronto Sun