As police clashed with Tibetan protesters in Lhasa last week, shops were set on fire, vehicles overturned, ethnic Chinese attacked and crowds turned back by tear gas in the worst civil unrest to seize the remote region in nearly two decades. Although reports are difficult to confirm, Western media estimates of the death toll ranged from two to as many as 20. As in 1989, the last time such violence racked Tibet, relatively modest protests against Chinese rule escalated into wider unrest after authorities cracked down with detentions and brute force. The apparent cause of the turmoil, once again, was the March 10 anniversary of a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.
But there's another factor adding to the tension: Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics in less than five months. Obsessed with pulling off a picture-perfect Games, Chinese authorities seem rattled by even minor PR setbacks. After the singer Björk shouted "Tibet! Tibet!" during a recent concert in Shanghai, China's Ministry of Culture declared that she'd broken the law and that it would clamp down on performances by foreign artists. Then at the last minute, authorities halted filming on "Mao's Last Dancer," a movie based on dancer Li Cunxin's memoir about life in Mao's China.
The Olympic torch relay is also mired in controversy. Beijing plans to have runners carry the Olympic flame to the top of Mount Everest in Tibet—and to ensure no repeat of last year's protests at Everest base camp by pro-Tibet Western activists, officials have barred foreign climbers from summiting the Tibetan side. Now Chinese authorities are leaning on the Nepalese government to impose similar restrictions from their side of the peak. Can Chinese officials put the entire roof of the world into lockdown? According to one foreign analyst involved in monitoring Olympic preparations, who requested anonymity for security reasons, "They're simply just freaking out."