Well before Las Vegas adopted the motto, it was easy to assume that what happened in Tibet stayed in Tibet. Not any more. Unrest in the province may reverberate beyond China’s borders. That’s because for the first time since they rose against Beijing’s rule in the 1950s, the denizens of Lhasa have something new in their armoury: political leverage.
China’s hosting of the Olympics means the world will be scrutinizing its policies in Tibet like never before. Already there is talk in Western capitals of a potential embargo of the games should China repeat the 1989 brutal suppression of Tibetan protests. That would be the biggest setback for China’s global ambitions since the massacre in Tiananmen Square the same year.
The bigger concern could be domestic. The Tibetans have realized the importance of the games going off without a hitch for the People’s Republic. If this works in their favour, others could play the Olympics card. After all, China has serious problems. Pollution is the most visible, but rampant inflation could be more serious. In a country where the cost of eating consumes one-third of the average family’s pay cheque, food inflation could lead to actual hunger—and that is a powerful motivator to political action. Hearing the monks of Lhasa invoke the Olympics may give some increasingly pinched Chinese an idea—one Beijing may not be able to contain in a mountain kingdom.