Recent events in Tibet have underscored the fact that more than a Half Century of Chinese occupation—and forcible attempts to change Tibetans into Han Chinese—aren't working and never will. Resistance to Beijing's imperialism hasn't come just from the "Dalai Lama clique," as Chinese officials put it, but from all 6 million Tibetans.
Thus Beijing's problems won't simply go away when the 14th Dalai Lama dies; he's now 72 and very durable. But that's a good thing, for China's leaders are going to need his help to peacefully resolve the crisis. The Dalai Lama remains committed to nonviolence and a solution that would benefit both sides. And he's the only person capable of persuading his people to accept such a deal.
It's not difficult to imagine what an eventual agreement between China and Tibet would look like. Tibetans want the reunification of their territory and people, only a third of whom actually live in China's Tibet Autonomous Region (the rest live in historically Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan or in exile). They also want real political autonomy, respect for their culture, economic development that better protects Tibet's fragile environment and the freedom to openly practice Buddhism.
The Chinese for their part want international respect, recognition of the legitimacy of their claim to Tibet and access to the vast resources of the Tibetan plateau. They also need better environmental policies and a source of spiritual inspiration for their people—both of which Tibetans could help them achieve.
Granting the first item on Tibet's wish list—territorial reunification—would be easy: it could be accomplished by an edict from the Politburo and a stroke of the president's pen. Granting political autonomy wouldn't be much harder, and would allow China to stop wasting money on the colonization of the Tibetan plateau—where, due to the altitude, Han can't live comfortably anyway.
As for improving Tibet's environment, this could be accomplished by removing the large colonies of Han Chinese Beijing has established throughout the province, along with the huge military infrastructure currently holding down the Tibetan population. The Tibetans could then work to preserve their local flora and fauna by returning to their time-tested social and agricultural practices, which succeeded for millennia in keeping their country green.
Ensuring Tibetans get the respect they deserve might be more difficult, since China's government has, in recent years, turned from communism to nationalism as a mass ideology. But allowing ordinary Chinese greater access to honest information about Tibet would help.
What about China's goals? Helping Tibet would also help Beijing. If China were to take the above steps and allow the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders to return from exile, the payoff would be enormous. China could quickly confirm the legitimacy of its rule over Tibet by holding an internationally monitored plebiscite there. The Dalai Lama has said many times that he supports China's sovereignty. Were Tibet granted real autonomy, he'd likely endorse China's claim in such a referendum, and if he asked them to, his people would follow his lead—so long as China doesn't wait too long. The more time passes, the more defiant the mood of the younger generation of Tibetans.
The wider world would wildly applaud a referendum, creating more good will than the Olympics could. China would also benefit economically. Its tourist industry would profit, as would Han investment in the province. And even after it granted autonomy, China could continue to enjoy the fruits of the Tibetan plateau, which include rich mineral deposits, wood, wool and other animal products, exotic herbs and attractive tourist destinations. To kick-start measures, Beijing should declare the entire plateau a national environmental preserve. This wouldn't block all development, but it would allow China to enlist international help to ensure its activities there were green and sustainable.
Improved relations with the Dalai Lama and Tibet would also have a spiritual payoff. Buddhism was once a major source of solace and inspiration for ordinary Chinese, before it was uprooted by communism and the Cultural Revolution. This persecution has helped create a valueless and materialistic population. In recent years, that's begun to worry Beijing, which, in the face of a rising rich-poor divide, is now desperate to create a "harmonious society." The Dalai Lama, through his teaching, could help by sparking a renaissance in Chinese Buddhism—which promotes contentment, trust, gentleness, a sense of purpose and ethical values.
As all the above suggests, improving relations between China and Tibet would offer enormous benefits for both sides: most important, real freedom within China for Tibetans and world respect and global peace for China. This doesn't mean that changing direction will be easy—there's too much bad blood for that. But the stakes are too high not to start trying: both sides should lift their eyes to the vision.