My father sent me an article from the Seattle Times concerning this potential problem: http://seattletimes.nwsource
So much for the 'Great Firewall of China' blockading emails and blogs that concern Tibet, eh?
What do I think about the article?
I find it accurate, as far as depicting how the nationalistic views of most of my Chinese friends, students, and colleagues are voiced. One student, who himself is a minority (but very Han-assimilated one), views Tibet as integral to China. Passing on some of the arguments I'm sure he's heard going around in both official media and private conversation:
1. Western ideas of what is right and wrong don't apply to China, or to Non-Western countries in general. Due to core philosophical differences (Confucian ideas rather than those of Locke, for example) democratic notions and indigenous rights don't fit their society.
My response to this claim is that while there are philosophical differences east/west, there are also philosophical and cultural divides between Tibet and the PRC thus far unresolved, a main reason why there continues to be a strong separatist movement in Tibet. The claim also fails to note that the West contains plenty of examples of expansionist empires as well, and imperialist powers the world around go through boom-bust cycles (think Ottoman, British, Roman, and yes, Chinese dynasties that all gave way to chaos and feuding warlord fiefdoms) neither making this the most stable philosophy of state-building, nor one worth emulating.
2. A prime example of Soviet style "but-what-about" arguments similar to the comment attributed to Christ as "look to the plank in thine own eye". I.e. "But what about Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Scotland, etc, all examples of Western conquest and imperialism." A very fair point. I know that my friend Alana, from Hawaii, noted that some tension over the issue of American incorporation of the islands still exists.
The rather brittle answer to that one is that Hawaiians and Alaskans don't require a massive armed presence to keep them from seceding, more or less proof that the US is seen as a legitimate government in those places. However, most imperial excesses of the west are past-tense, and in general there has been a world-wide trend towards federalism, ethnic autonomous homelands, etc. I mean, it looks like Scotland could actually separate from the UK in our lifetimes, a possibility fought tooth and nail by British chauvinists for ages. The point being that past imperialism aside, places like Russia and China, even little Georgia, are attempting to buck a trend towards greater local autonomy.
3. The usual argument about China subsidizing, building infrastructure, and developing Tibetan economy, thus justifying its presence.
This is probably the most common argument, and I usually reply by noting that (a) Han Chinese immigrants have probably benefited more than the local ethnic populaces of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, and (b) the differences between Han and Tibetans are not primarily based on economic issues, but rather cultural issues. Initially, the Dalai Lama accepted union with China, and massive resistance (and the Dalai Lama fleeing the country) only happened when China began instituting draconian controls over Tibetan traditions and religion. The cultural difference of perspective between Tibetans and the Han occupiers isn't limited to religious traditions, however. The casual and wasteful way that Han companies (and imported Han laborers) treat the environment has also been a friction point. The fact that the Dalai Lama is now only asking for factual SAR status comparable to Hong Kong certainly points to the fact that the main disagreement leading Tibetans to seek separate determination is over cultural matters rather than economic or even military matters (both of which would pretty much remain the same if Tibet were granted HK-like status).
An additional counter-argument to the "but we're bringing them prosperity!" point, is that it validates European and Japanese governance of the undeveloped and developing world. Are there any Chinese who fondly reminisce about the days when Japan and Great Britain attempted to "civilize" them? No, I'm fairly sure there are next to none who would like to make that argument.
4. My student brought up a point I haven't heard before, perhaps a new post-Kosovo argument, against the forces of Balkanization. He sees (perhaps without much understanding of European perspectives) the gradual unification of regional blocs such as the EU, ASEAN, etc, as a rectification of historical splits. In his words, "people sometimes want autonomy, and then they change their minds and try to unify". His point being that we should just simplify the process by frustrating attempts at autonomy in the here and now.
I think the whole argument is extremely simplistic, however, and ignores the fact that EU countries still all have cultural determination, foreign policy (and most other aspects of government) firmly in their own hands, and only subject themselves to Brussels in matters of trade, standardizing measures, and as an aid in preventing and solving disputes between members. This is not an alliance meant to become a United States, but rather to strengthen the EU economy and negotiating position. This statement, however, is probably a good example (indirectly) of the anti-separatist/anti-Balkanization rhetoric coming out of Beijing and Moscow right about now.
As mentioned below, none of this rhetoric would be particularly frightening (in fact, could be very enjoyably debated back and forth) if not for a certain rabid streak starting to demonstrate itself, not much differently than it has in innumerable other countries with weak rule of law and/or governments taking full advantage.
In any case, China will undergo massive flight of both foreign investment and tourist dollars if nationalists get any more violent. I mean, look at Tibet. The young Tibetans (note similarity to 'Young Turks' movement) weren't concerned about the economic impact of their actions on Tibet itself, because the Tibetan prime concerns at the moment (contrary to propaganda) aren't economic. I suppose the materialistic lowlanders have difficulty with the concept. But the Han probably will be concerned when it begins to hit them in the pocketbooks. I hope they moderate before it's too late.