Echoes of Tiananmen Heard in Tibet Protests

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The last time Beijing cracked down on Tibet, it was 1989 -- the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Hu Jintao, the current Chinese president, ran the province. Today, violent scenes are playing out again in Tibet. It's a reminder that despite China's economic liberalization and some political opening, the authoritarian instincts of the country's leadership haven't changed.

The confrontation started with a peaceful protest led by monks on March 10, the anniversary of Tibet's national uprising against China in 1959, nine years after Chinese troops invaded. Beijing's response -- arresting several of the monks -- led to further protests, which escalated to mob violence in Lhasa. Cars were burned and shops looted. Although state-run media said 10 civilians died in fires, the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala said 80 perished.

China has controlled Tibet for more than half a century, and across those years countless Tibetans have been killed and thousands of monasteries have been destroyed. It is still forbidden to display a photograph of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, much less call for freedom of religion, speech or assembly. In 1989, the military arrested peaceful protesters and Hu declared martial law for 14 months.

This time around, China's one-party leadership has another incentive to muffle protests: the Olympics. China won the Games after assuring the International Olympic Committee that it would respect human rights. The Tibetan uprising is thus a major embarrassment, all the more so because Beijing has been increasing its heavy-handed control of the province.

The irony is that since the early 1970s the Dalai Lama has advocated autonomy, not independence, for Tibet, and repeatedly disavows violence. He has called for China to deliver on the promises inherent in its constitution, which guarantees "regional autonomy" and "organs of self-government" for areas inhabited by minority nationalities.

There's much Beijing could do to improve its rule in Lhasa. Allowing Tibetans to practice their religion freely would be a good place to start. Ending subsidies for Chinese settlers to move to Tibet and stopping the forced resettlement of Tibetan nomads would be welcome moves. Beijing could also benefit from taking its dialogue with the Dalai Lama more seriously; after he's gone, there's no guarantee that an equally moderate voice will take his place.

The Olympics were supposed to be a showcase for Chinese progress. Instead, the government's fear of political dissent and its authoritarian overreaction are showing the world that far too little has changed since Tiananmen.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Wall Street Journal.