On Sunday, Ming Pao, a Hong Kong Chinese-language newspaper, reported that around 900 Buddhist monks had clashed with police for four days in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, while celebrating the award of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama last week. About 3,000 Chinese armed police, employing tactics seen in the recent Burmese protests, later surrounded the Zhaibung monastery—the largest in Tibet—and prevented the monks from leaving. (You can read an English-language report here.)
This incident shows us that the Tibetans remain adamantly opposed to Chinese rule, that Beijing’s grip over them is tenuous, and that any incident can trigger large disturbances. The Tibetans also remind Americans that we are an inspiration for repressed peoples everywhere.
Yet if we can inspire, it must also be true that we can dishearten. Our well-intentioned engagement of authoritarian regimes legitimizes despots and thereby slows down pressure for democratic change. Analysts, for instance, wonder why three decades of economic development have not resulted in democratization of the Chinese one-party state. The answer largely lies in the fact that Washington, as it has tried to ease China into the international system, has supported the autocrats in Beijing. Joyous Tibetans have just reminded us that we have a responsibility not to slow the struggle against despotic rulers.