WASHINGTON, March 17 (UPI) -- One sobering aspect of the tragedy of Tibet is to consider a list of the places in the world where abuses of human rights are most common. Darfur in Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Myanmar (or Burma), Uzbekistan and Tibet would come high on most peoples' lists.
And what they have in common is the crucial enabling role of China. Tibet, where the official Chinese figure of 10 dead in the disturbances of the last four days is dwarfed by the more reliable reports from inside the country of more than 100 dead, has been under direct Chinese rule since 1951.
Tibet has been ruled with an iron hand, while also being colonized by the deliberate immigration of vast numbers of Han Chinese as part of what the Dalai Lama calls "cultural genocide." Han Chinese shopkeepers have been a particular target of the latest riots.
It should not be forgotten that China's current leader, Hu Jintao, boats in his credentials for high office his ruthless role in crushing the last round of Tibetan unrest in 1989-90, when he was party chief in Lhasa. It was an unruly time, following the death of the Panchen Lama, an important Buddhist religious leader (and may Tibetan exiles suspect Hu of having a hand in his passing) and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama.
Hu imposed martial law, sent 2,000 troops into the Tibetan districts of Lhasa, and somewhere between 40 and 120 Tibetans were killed. Many hundreds were arrested, and the reports of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture contain heart-rending accounts of their fate.
As a reward for his ruthlessness, Hu was then promoted by Jiang Zemin to the standing committee of the Communist Party's Central Committee, making him in effect the leading heir for the eventual top job. Tibetan exiles say Hu clambered to supreme power over Tibetan corpses.
China's role elsewhere is less direct, but equally unsavory. North Korea is close to being a Chinese client state, largely dependent on the oil pipeline from China. Myanmar, where the ruthless suppression of the protests by Buddhist monks earlier this year now looks like a grisly dress rehearsal of the events in Tibet, has Chinese military and electronic eavesdropping posts on its islands, Chinese engineers building ports, roads and oil and gas terminals, and Chinese diplomatic protection in the United Nations.
China also rides shotgun in the United Nations for Sudan, which provides 10 percent of China's oil imports. In Sudan and Myanmar alike, China's oil interests appear to trump the desire of some Chinese diplomats to play a rather more responsible role in international affairs.
China has also helped to prop up the wretched regime of Zimbabwe's President Mugabe. It has had considerable backing from China's North Korean crony, whose military "advisers" infamously helped Mugabe crush the Matabele tribes of the south in the early 1980s to consolidate his rule. Estimates of the death toll range from 3,000 to 7,000.
China also turned a blind eye to the massacres of protesters two years ago in the Uzbekistan cities of Andijan and Pahktaabad. Official figures say 169 died, but eyewitness reports claimed more than 700 dead. Shortly afterward, Uzbek President Islam Karimov was honored in Beijing by Hu as "an old friend of the Chinese people."
Karimov then signed a $600 million oil exploration agreement with China, which in effect broke U.N. efforts to rally an international condemnation of the Uzbek repression.
"As to what has happened recently in Uzbekistan, it is the internal affairs of the country," said China's Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We have all along firmly supported the efforts of the Uzbek Government to fight the three forces of terrorists, separatists and extremists."
As an authoritarian regime with little regard for the human rights of its own people, nor to their free access to information, China insists other countries have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states. At the same time, there are signs that China is open to reform, most notably in its limited cooperation in the six-nation process for dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue.
But the bottom line is that China is almost impervious to international influence, and it knows it. Even before the United States slid into recession, China's ownership of some $1.5 trillion in U.S. Treasury bills, dollars and foreign exchange gave Beijing enormous international leverage. And now that China's own growth rate may be the last thing stopping the global economy from following the United States into recession, there is little appetite for challenging China over Tibet.
The Tibetan crisis was predictable. Tibetan activists, and Uighur Muslim activists in western China, know that this year's Beijing Olympic Games gave them an opportunity. Beijing knew that the Games could make it vulnerable to disturbances and that repression would attract a large and critical international audience.
In its efficient way, Beijing has doubtless prepared for trouble and carefully worked out its most effective and least damaging response. Given its economic weight in world affairs, China has probably calculated that its image and its Games will not suffer unduly from its repression in Tibet or its accommodating way with dictators.
If they are right, then the rallying cry of human rights that proved surprisingly effective when applied to the old Soviet Union may be losing its force. This would be a dismaying loss. Human rights have given the United Nations, the United States, Europe and much of the rest of the world a cause to which they can rally, or at least pay lip service.
It may be one of those hypocrisies by which vice pays tribute to virtue, but the iconic role of human rights since the Helsinki treaties of 1975 has been one of the most promising developments in international affairs. If China continues to get away with flouting the elementary rights of the U.N. Charter, we shall all be the losers.