Joshua Dugdale: If we can't put pressure on China now, when will we?

The Olympics offer the West an opportunity

Images of the dozens of deaths in Tibet look as if they will as infamous as those of the crackdown on Buddhist monks in 1989, and will be just as uncomfortable for the Chinese.

I am a film-maker and have spent the past four years following the Dalai Lama in his painstaking and frustrating efforts to engage the Chinese in negotiations towards what he calls "meaningful autonomy". In 1987, he met them halfway, abandoning his claim for full independence but seeking a degree of autonomy under overall Chinese control.

The Chinese response? To slate his character and dispute that he ever really gave up his claim for independence.(In doing so, as my film reveals, they have mistranslated the Dalai Lama's speeches, confusing the word 'freedom' for 'independence'.) Beijing believes it can carry on along this path, achieving a "peaceful rise" as it goes. But that is unlikely. Pressure from the international community will increase, just as the demonstrations are spreading out from Lhasa.

The Chinese have a choice. They can continue with their claimed policy of not talking to the Dalai Lama, which is risky and creates a target for those who want to see China democratise. If they crack down harshly, as their foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gan has said they will, China will be on the back foot for the next six months, with a potentially disastrous Olympic Games tarnishing their reputation for years. But, given that most countries are keener to do business with them than talk about human rights, they may feel they can weather the storm.

The alternative is to enter real negotiations with the Tibetan leader. This would require attention to detail, political courage and a willingness to compromise (on both sides). If diplomacy is about providing ladders down which your opponent can climb, Tibet is badly in need of such ladders – not least one that can bring the China's leaders to admit that the Dalai Lama is someone to do business with. And the Chinese have to confirm publicly that secret talks have been going on.

In making my film on the Dalai Lama I wanted to see if Beijing could justify its claim that he is duplicitous. If China's leaders could see the results, I have no doubt that it would challenge some of their preconceptions about him. (The same applies to the West.)

Whatever happens over the next few months, the pressure will mount in Tibet. Softly softly diplomacy has not worked. The Chinese were given the Olympics to "bring them into the international community", but on issue after issue – Tibet, Burma, Darfur – their behaviour has not improved. Beijing says it has put a lot of money into Tibet, but most has gone into Chinese hands, and Tibetan culture and religion continue to be undermined.

The Chinese government does not like embarrassment, so, with the Olympics nearing, the international community must act now – because Tibetan and Chinese lives are at stake.

Joshua Dugdale's film 'The Unwinking Gaze' opens the London International Documentary Festival on 29 March. See