The Magazine

Carrying a Torch for China

Skip the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, Mr. President.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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London

It was my four-year-old son's first demonstration. But he was getting cold, the police were manhandling the Tibetans to the point that there might be a stampede, and I wasn't sure if the bus that had just rushed by at such an unseemly speed actually carried the stupid torch, so we headed for the tube and home. My son wanted to know why people kept saying "China, stop the kitty."

"It's 'stop the killing,' " I corrected.

I tried to explain for the nth time: "Suppose you have a neighbor who has a dog. And he beats the dog. You can hear the dog crying all day. Then the neighbor comes by and invites you to bring your dog .  .  ."

"Daddy, we don't have a dog."

"I know. We will sometime soon. I promise. But pretend. The neighbor wants to invite your dog--and every other dog in the neighborhood--to a dog party. A big dog party. Black dogs, white dogs, yellow dogs, red dogs .  .  ."

"Or a mouse, it could be a mouse party, Daddy. Or a cat party .  .  ."

Okay, I thought, he gets it.

It wasn't until I got home and saw the paramilitary blue and white tracksuits flanking each torchbearer, and the wolfish Chinese army profiles so familiar to anyone who has lived in Beijing that I got it. I regretted not dropping off my son with some kindly Tibetan woman and trying to stand in front of the bus myself.

I have been agnostic on the utility of boycotting the Beijing Olympics. I prefer to consider the Olympics nothing more than a sporting event. Host cities should do their job: spend their $30 billion and get out of the way. But the Chinese government, in its insecure and bullying fashion, keeps pushing its luck with acts like the army-saturated torch welcoming ceremony in Beijing and the endless torch relay with its unprecedented scale of 85,000 miles and 20,000 torchbearers, scheduled to hit not just every Chinese province, but major capitals on every inhabited continent, as if we were all part of a new Chinese world order. Most of all, by adding their goon squad of "flame attendants" with no apparent diplomatic status into the scene--hovering retentively, manhandling Londoners, and barking orders at the torchbearers--Beijing has made it abundantly clear that this is not about the Olympic spirit, but about power, Chinese power.

The torch relay is an unforced error by the Chinese government, and it deserves every bit of mayhem and farce that London, Paris, San Francisco, and all the cities to come can provide. At a minimum, a boycott of the political opening ceremony looks like the inevitable, if imperfect, compromise. But we should do it eyes open, aware not only of Chinese culpability for the current mess, but also of our own.

Back in 2001, pretty much every U.S. newspaper editor tacked the headline "Who's Hu?" on the obligatory backgrounder introducing the incoming Chinese president, Hu Jintao. The pun was usually more interesting than the article; the singular accomplishment in Hu's otherwise colorless party career was his suppression of the Tibetan revolt of 1989--100 people were massacred. With Hu now firmly in control, it's not surprising that the current Tibet crackdown appears cleaner than the first: well rehearsed, coldly efficient, with most of the blood splendidly isolated from the prying Western media. Hu could have provided window-dressing for the West: an agreement to sit down with the Dalai Lama (at some unspecified point in the future, once the shape of the table has been determined and so on). In fact, under pressure from the International Olympics Committee (IOC), he still might provide some similar bunkum, but it will not change the nature of the Chinese Communist party. Much like the true church of the Middle Ages, the party has the prime directive of bringing errant provinces into the fold and destroying any opposing systems of thought. The problem is that, as a world leader, Hu has the prime directive of bringing off a successful Beijing Olympics--an event, by the way, that the Chinese people have put a lot of sweat into. And that's a problem for us too.