On March 10, 1959, a violent uprising began in Lhasa - one that was orchestrated from the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party, namely Chairman Mao Zedong himself. Mao wanted an excuse to crush the Tibetans, send the Dalai Lama into exile and put the nominally-autonomous region under the CCP jackboot.
All that was accomplished. And now, 50 years later, the Chinese government is at a loss on how to untangle this one last part of Mao's monstrous legacy.
The People's Liberation Army first invaded Tibet in 1950, shortly after the Communists drove Chiang Kai-shek off the mainland. But because Mao was heavily invested in the Korean War on the other side of the continent, the Chinese victory was tenuous, and its domination hardly comprehensive.
Still a teenager then, the Dalai Lama was invited to Beijing to visit with Mao, who appeared both gracious and charming to the Tibetan spiritual leader. In October 1951, he formally accepted the Seventeen-Point Agreement outlining the terms of an autonomous Tibet as part of the People's Republic of China. He would repudiate this document when he went into exile in India eight years later.
What the Dalai Lama has not repudiated, however, is Chinese sovereignty in an autonomous Tibet. He has tried vainly to negotiate, through emissaries, with the Chinese government on the basis of this framework. Yet, the CCP has been unable to reach a consensus on how to resolve the Tibetan issue, resorting mostly to the tired tactics of forceful crackdowns while labeling the Dalai Lama a "separatist."
What President Hu Jintao and his cabinet must realize, though, is that the opportunity for a peaceful resolution to the Tibet question is closing fast.
First, the aging and possibly ailing Dalai Lama (who will turn 74 this year) may be Beijing's best hope to reach a satisfactory settlement without further escalation and bloodshed. While he has stuck to the concept of autonomy without outright independence, a number of Tibetan dissidents have diverged from that position. But as long as he is still the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, and also recognized as such globally, any agreement with the Dalai Lama's consent would more than likely be respected and honored on the Tibetan side.
Second, the Chinese leadership has to recognize that the exercise of its soft power in recent years has resulted in much more gains than any saber-rattling with hard power. Hu needs to look no further than the rapprochement with Taiwan. A decade of military intimidation designed to meddle with Taiwan's elections only brought upon them rebuke from the island's voters. A more benevolent approach under Hu has delivered a much more desirable outcome - a political climate change in Taiwan, and a smoother path to a peaceful resolution in an unresolved civil war.
With its power reaching unprecedented heights in the midst of the global financial crisis, this is actually the best moment for China to show that it's a mature superpower-to-be that needn't resort to the gun barrel to solve problems at every turn. By offering very small amounts of magnanimity, a confident China can gain immeasurably in stature, both in the eyes of the west as well as an increasingly restive Tibetan community.
Finally, the continued demonizing of the Dalai Lama and imposition of martial law only guarantee further bloodshed at a time when China can least afford it. Fifty years ago, the quelling of the Tibetan uprising resulted in the death of 86,000, at the time an insignificant number while Mao was busy starving nearly 40 million Chinese to death in the midst of the Great Leap Forward. Today, with the 20-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre coming up in June, another crackdown that ends in thousands of deaths will only spark more unrest and violence in China's border regions and cause an alarmed Taiwan to once again drift away.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped via the backdoor and a half century of antagonism ensued - despite some genuine Chinese contribution in improving the Tibetans' living standards. There is no better time for him to return - via the front door - as a dignitary worthy of the Chinese government's respect. A photo-op, followed by at least the beginning of a constructive dialogue between Hu and the Dalai Lama will achieve far more than 10,000 PLA troops and riot police can. China is unlikely to ever find a negotiating partner with nearly as much prestige and clout as the Dalai Lama.
Is Tibet part of China? That may be answered in the affirmative - only without bloodshed. But time is running out.