Leading article: Playing for the highest stakes

The months before the Beijing Olympics were always going to be perilous for the Chinese authorities. It was not just a question of whether the world-beating facilities would be ready – of course they will, whatever the financial and human cost. It was rather whether the country's oppressed minorities, of which Beijing has created considerably more than its share, would use the world media interest as an opportunity to make their voice heard – and what the Chinese authorities would do then.

In recent days, news has reached the outside world of serious disturbances in Tibet, the remote mountain region that has long resented subjugation to the Han Chinese. A failed revolt in 1959 led the Dalai Lama to flee. Reports speak of cars and shops on fire, and troops forcibly entering and sealing off the monasteries. Grainy images circulated of riot forces chasing and beating Buddhist monks. Western visitors have reported hearing gunfire.

The confrontations, the most widespread in Tibet for 20 years, seem uncannily reminiscent of those in Burma last autumn, when the authorities successfully cracked down on a post-election revolt. Any co-ordination, however, looks unlikely. The Lhasa protests are said to have begun when large groups took to the streets to demand the release of their fellow monks, detained after trying to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the failed anti-Chinese uprising. The violence escalated from there.

If and when the Beijing authorities get around to reporting the disturbances – so far only brief reports have appeared in their English-language media – they will doubtless blame outside instigators. But it cannot be ruled out that Beijing had a hand in the unrest in a cynical attempt to draw the sting of any co-ordinated movement in good time. The last thing China wants on the eve of the Olympics is a full-blown Tibetan uprising.

The balance sheet of Chinese rule is not entirely negative. The new railway reduces Tibet's isolation. And the region is less abjectly backward than it was. But development fosters assimilation, and any authority that is as widely hated as Han Chinese rule is in Tibet should have learnt by now how to tread more lightly.

The closer the Beijing Olympics come, the higher the stakes will be. If, come August, our athletes are to compete with a clear conscience, Western governments must be prepared to play diplomatic hardball along the way.