LHASA, CHINA -- A small group of Buddhist monks, unarmed and uneducated by modern standards but sustained by a vision of eventual liberation from the Chinese, has created the worst crisis in Tibet since the Chinese Army suppressed a major uprising in 1959 and radical Red Guards destroyed monasteries here in the 1960s, according to diplomats and observers.
Tibetans have always been among the most rebellious of the 56 minorities that make up what Beijing calls the "great family of the Chinese nation."
Since China forcibly annexed this underpopulated region in central Asia more than three decades ago, relations between the 1.7 million Tibetans and an estimated 400,000 Chinese civilians and troops stationed here have been strained.
Few of the Chinese living here understand the Tibetan language or culture. Many look down on the Tibetans and what they consider to be a backward culture.
It is this deep distrust and lack of understanding between Chinese and Tibetans that makes any easy resolution of the current crisis impossible.
But the recent policies of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, aimed at breaking down China's isolation and allowing a modest revival of religious freedom, apparentlyhave given Tibetans a new opportunity to test the Chinese and project their call for independence to the outside world.
Beijing recently opened the land link to neighboring Nepal, and many expatriate supporters of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader whom Tibetans regard as their spiritual leader, have gained easier access to the monks in Tibet. Diplomats today said the Chinese Embassy in Nepal has stopped issuing visas for travel to Tibet.
Foreign diplomats said they believe the monks' calls for a free Tibet will not succeed because the Chinese will never let Tibet slip from their control. In Beijing's view, Tibet, with its lofty Himalayan Mountains, creates a barrier against neighboring India and is therefore essential to China's defense.
But even if Chinese security forces succeed in suppressing pro-independence protests in Tibet for now, much damage has been done to China's image and the political and economic consequences for Beijing could be enormous.
Before this crisis is over, a shake-up is expected in the local Communist Party organization, which has shown an inability to provide leadership. In Beijing, critics of China's policy of opening the country to the outside world are expected to argue that the process went too far in Tibet. It is unclear what these consequences will mean for the political future of China's reformers, particularly three weeks before an important party congress opens.
The Chinese-dominated police and government of the Tibetan autonomous region have appeared unprepared to handle the demonstrations. Initially, the young Chinese policemen showed restraint, but in last Thursday's demonstration here in the Tibetan capital, where at least six Tibetans died, the police lost their composure in the face of the stone-throwing mob and fired repeatedly on unarmed demonstrators, witnesses said.
Tibet also threatens to become an even greater economic burden for Beijing as it pours in police reinforcements.
Tibet is one of China's poorest regions. It has an average per capita income of about $110 a year, one of the country's highest illiteracy rates (70 percent) and a life expectancy of 40 years compared to 75 in the rest of China.
If the current pattern of protests and crackdown continues, it will cut off the tourism that Beijing is using as its only major means of drawing money into Tibet. The Chinese claim to have pumped $2.3 billion into Tibet since 1952. Deng's aim has been to improve the living standards of Tibetans, and thus gain their support and tie them more closely to Beijing. But economists said much of the money has gone into roads and other projects that are of more use to the Chinese than to the Tibetans.
Economic modernization appears to mean little to many of the monks who say it is of no consequence, except as a threat to Tibetan culture.
Earlier attempts to suppress the monks in the 1950s and 1960s were more brutal than the current crackdown, but the Chinese have failed to break the spirit of the often placid-appearing followers of the Dalai Lama. Despite the superior force of the Chinese police, the monks appear to be sustained by a simple but deep belief in their martyrs and the Dalai Lama, whom they regard as a god-king, and by moral support from foreign sympathizers.
The monks' confidence that they can prevail is supported by prophecies from an aged oracle who has seen signs that in the Tibetan Year of the Dragon, a few months away, the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet from his exile in India.
The presence of hundreds of foreign tourists in Lhasa has also constrained the Chinese. Many of the tourists sympathize with the open and easy-going Tibetans and their desire for independence. Some of the young backpackers among the tourists have made it their task to try to get information and photographs regarding the Tibetan protests disseminated to the outside world. The few doctors among them have treated the Tibetan wounded.
Most observers said that if foreigners were absent from Tibet, as they once were, the crackdown would have been more severe.