China's leaders would be making a mistake if they treat this week's talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama merely as a public relations ploy to avoid trouble before the August Olympic Games in Beijing.
Their hope would be to avoid protests by Tibetans and to placate foreign heads of state such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has said his attendance at the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies will depend on the progress achieved in the dialogue with the Tibetans.
Beijing's bosses have invested a great deal of effort in staging the Games, with the obvious intention of demonstrating that they have succeeded at turning post-Mao China into a thoroughly modernized great power. But their harsh repression of the Tibetan protests last March showed the world a different face.
And their insistence on repeating threadbare lies about the Dalai Lama's "splittist" ambitions - pretending he really wants independence for Tibet despite his continued calls for limited autonomy and cultural survival - makes the Chinese leadership look tellingly insecure.
An ascendant great power confident of its legitimacy would not show so much fear of the ethical and spiritual influence of the Dalai Lama. A secure regime would not try to impose on the outside world the same blatant untruths its propaganda apparatus peddles to a domestic audience.
Inviting the revered leader of Tibetans to return to his homeland would do far more for Beijing's image than the most clockwork Olympic Games.
If the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa a half century after fleeing the Chinese People's Liberation Army and preached the wisdom of Tibetan autonomy within China, China's leaders would have a chance of fostering harmonious relations between Tibetans and Chinese.
That is preferable to waiting for the Dalai Lama to die in exile in the hope that his people would submit passively to demographic submersion and cultural extinction.