It is curious, and sometimes perversely entertaining, to watch members of the Chinese Communist leadership when they are asked about Tibet. During his 1997 trip to Washington and June's Beijing summit, Jiang Zemin preserved a cool demeanor when discussing nuclear proliferation and human rights, but when Tibet was raised, with eyes glazed, fists clenched, he repeated the familiar cant about how China had "liberated" Tibet from a "backward serfdom." Then he changed the subject.

Tibet-watchers are often asked to explain why Tibet is such a contentious issue for China. In the half-century that China has occupied Tibet, the topic largely has been perceived as a human rights issue, not a matter of strategic or legal interest. But Tibet is foremost a strategic and legal concern for China, which explains Jiang Zemin's anxiety when he is asked to meet with the Dalai Lama, the Nobel laureate and Buddhist monk or, to quote President Clinton, grant Tibet "autonomy with integrity."

When the People's Republic of China annexed East Turkestan in 1949 and Tibet in 1950, the land mass of the People's Republic of China doubled. Tibet alone comprises one-fourth of the PRC's territory. The PRC recognizes 56 National Minority Peoples, which number some 90 million people but inhabit more than 60 percent of PRC territory. The influx of Han immigrants into Tibet continues unabated; China needs space for a population of 1.2 billion, which is expected to rise well into the 21st century.

As a geographic feature, the Tibetan plateau is ideal for weapons deployment and development. China's Los Alamos, the Ninth Academy, was for years situated in northeastern Tibet, near the Dalai Lama's birthplace. Tibet is a vast, virgin frontier of lumber, water and minerals, including some of the world's largest uranium deposits. Occupied Tibet gives China a continuous border with Burma, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Kashmir, which contributes to security tensions in South Asia. Speaking on Indian television on May 3 regarding India's decision to test nuclear weapons, India's minister of defense, George Fernandes, said, "China is enemy No. 1."

The vast Tibetan plateau is visibly controlled by a military infrastructure. Military and commercial ventures are more openly entwined in Tibet than in China's coastal regions, in that Tibet's harsh climate and high altitude discourages civilian industry and investment. Travelers learn this quickly enough; the only tourist agency in Tibet that can grant a permit or rent a car is owned by the People's Liberation Army (PLA). When traveling in restricted areas with a permit, one has little choice but to stay in an official guest house, where bed sheets are turned down by a soldier in uniform.

The PLA has left a gruesomely destructive legacy in Tibet: PLA troops looted and dynamited some 6,000 monasteries, which comprised most of the cultural and religious heritage of the Buddhist Himalaya; PLA troops killed thousands of Tibetans in firing squads, raids and torture sessions and deported thousands more to labor camps. Today the PLA and its subsidiary, the People's Armed Police, continue to employ the familiar police-state mechanisms of intimidation and torture to suppress a restive Tibetan populace that remains loyal to the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist religion, rejecting Chairman Mao and the Communist manifesto. China regards Tibet as an unstable region with potential to "split the motherland." Indeed, a secessionist movement in Tibet could well spread to other autonomous regions inhabited by "minority nationalities," a scenario that would mirror the collapse of the Soviet Union along ethnic divisions.

The Chinese constitution and the law on minority nationalities putatively guarantee autonomy for Tibet, but the PLA and the Chinese Communist Party are independent of law or constitution and do not honor the terms stated therein. If China granted the Tibetan people the autonomy hitherto promised, the Tibetan people would, finally, be permitted to exercise control over the exploitation of their resources. The PLA then would have to divest much of its control over mining, lumber and development in Tibet, which at present enriches China, not Tibet. A weakening of the PLA's economic control over Tibet might also weaken military control of one of the People's Republic of China's most prized conquests, the Tibetan plateau.

It isn't hard to understand why China's leaders want to stonewall any credible discussion of the Tibet question. But they do so at their own peril; Beijing might take note of Chechnya and Kosovo to consider the consequences of rejecting a rule of law and of ignoring the Dalai Lama's message of peace and reconciliation. The writer is a consultant to Refugees International and has worked for many years with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.