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Last month saw the 50th anniversary of what Tibetan activists like to call Tibetan National Uprising Day, the day in 1959 when Tibetans in Lhasa revolted against Chinese Communist Party rule. The rebellion was crushed, the Dalai Lama fled to India and, for at least a decade, things became a lot worse: Many Tibetans - possibly more than a million - starved to death during Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, temples and monasteries were smashed during the Cultural Revolution, and a large number of people died in the violence.

Chinese officials are noticeably jumpy in this year of anniversaries (20 years after Tiananmen). Last month, I was in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, where many Tibetans live. Even foreign tourists who had no clue about the anniversary were stopped in the streets by policemen looking for signs of rebellion. The colourful Tibetan district was cordoned off; not only was it forbidden to take pictures, one couldn't even walk through.

The Chinese press, however, marked the anniversary with effusive articles describing Tibetan joy at being liberated from centuries of feudalism and slavery. If the China Daily is to be believed, "pre-Liberation" Tibet was a living hell, and Tibetans are now grateful to be citizens of the People's Republic of China.

Some probably are. Many are not. But if Chinese propaganda paints too dark a picture of the Tibetan past, Westerners who sympathize with the Tibetan cause are often too sentimental.

The personal charm of the Dalai Lama, combined with the Himalayan air of superior spiritual wisdom, has promoted a caricature of a mystical, wise and peace-loving people being crushed by a brutal empire. It was not for nothing, however, that quite a few educated Tibetans actually welcomed the Chinese Communists in 1950. The Buddhist clergy was seen, not without reason, as hidebound and oppressive. Chinese communism promised modernization.

And that is what China's government delivered in the past few decades. Lhasa, a sleepy, rather grubby backwater only 30 years ago, is now a city of huge public squares, shopping centres and high-rise buildings, connected to the rest of China with a high-speed railway line.

It is true that Tibetans, sparsely represented in local government, may not have benefited as much as the Han Chinese, whose presence in cities such as Lhasa as soldiers, traders and prostitutes is so overwhelming that people worry about the extinction of Tibetan culture, except as an official tourist attraction.

Still, there is no question that Tibetan towns are now more modern - in terms of electrification, education, hospitals and other public facilities - than they were before. This is one of the arguments used by the Chinese to justify Tibet's absorption into greater China.

This argument has a long history. Western (and Japanese) imperialists used it in the early 20th century to justify their "missions" to "civilize" or "modernize" the natives. Taiwan, under Japanese rule, was, in fact, more modern than other parts of China. And the British brought modern administration, as well as railways, universities and hospitals, to India.

But most Europeans and Japanese are no longer so convinced that modernization is sufficient validation of imperial rule. Modernization should be carried out by self-governing people, not imposed by foreign force. Tibetans, in other words, should be allowed to modernize themselves.

But the Chinese have another argument up their sleeve. They are justly proud of their country's ethnic diversity. Why should nationality be defined by language or ethnicity? If Tibetans should be allowed to break away from China, why not the Welsh from Britain, the Basques from Spain, the Kurds from Turkey, or the Kashmiris from India?

In some cases, the answer might be: Well, perhaps they should. But ethnicity as the main marker of nationality is a vague and dangerous concept, not least because it leaves all minorities out in the cold.

So are people wrong to support the Tibetan cause? Should we dismiss it as sentimental nonsense? Not necessarily. The issue is not so much Tibetan culture or spirituality or even national independence, but political consent.

In this respect, the Tibetans are no worse off than other citizens of China. Historic monuments are being bulldozed everywhere in China in the name of development. Culture is being sterilized and homogenized in all Chinese cities, not just in Tibet. No Chinese citizen can vote the ruling party out of power.

The problem, then, is politics. The Chinese government says Tibetans are happy. But without a free press and the right to vote, there is no way of knowing this. Sporadic acts of collective violence, followed by equally violent oppression, suggest that many are not.

Without democratic reform, there will be no end to this cycle, for violence is the typical expression of people without free speech. This is true not only for Tibet but also for the rest of China. Tibetans will be free only when all Chinese are free. In that sense, all citizens of China hang together.

Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. His latest book is The China Lover.