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.

As the Tibetan and Falun Gong protests surrounding the global trail of the Olympic torch pick up intensity, Europe has already begun to pick sides. Haunted by the Berlin Olympics of 1936, universally regarded as Europe's dress rehearsal for the disastrous policy of appeasement, it is no coincidence that the two populations that bore the immediate brunt of the Nazi war machine, Poland and the Czech Republic, were the first to pull out of Beijing's political opening ceremony. Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, recently announced that she will not attend either. Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly threatened to do the same and possibly to carry the European Union along with him. You'd have thought that Britain might be inhibited by London's role as Olympics host city in 2012, but Prime Minister Gordon Brown went back late last week on his previously stated intention to attend the opening ceremony (while still clinging to a fig-leaf appearance at the closer).

The answer to the question of how comprehensive a boycott we are looking at probably lies in the United States, the global superpower. Given China's status as America's second largest trading partner, Washington cannot easily embrace the unbearable lightness of boycotting, but it is hard to imagine that President Bush, who has accepted a Chinese invitation to attend the Olympics, can easily stomach the Chinese rationalizations for the Tibet crackdown either.

Once you get past the usual Chinese admonitions about interference in internal affairs, the first Chinese argument is that Tibetan monks and activists are essentially terrorists, with the Dalai Lama standing in for bin Laden. Thus Chinese suppression of Tibetan Buddhism and the strategic resettlement of Han Chinese in Tibet are downplayed in favor of a serial loop of badly shot "atrocities of the Tibetan independence forces." (The Chinese government recently warned of "Tibetan suicide squads," indicating that they may consider staging an event with better lighting in the near future.) This argument doesn't really fly. Too many Washington leaders, Bush among them, have met the Dalai Lama, and it won't work with U.S. journalists either--the Chinese have shut down press access to Tibet all too frequently.

The second defense, favored by angry young Chinese males in reader comment sections throughout the Internet, parrots the Chinese government's depiction of Tibetans as picturesque but feckless (like our caricature of American Indians back when we still called them that), who desperately need Chinese modernization for their own good. The problem with the "Han Chinese burden" rationale is that we stopped slaughtering our natives some time ago.

The third Chinese argument is rarely stated openly. To do so would negate not only the two previous arguments, but also China's commitment to improve the human rights situation in advance of the Olympics. It goes like this: You are hypocrites. You knew the human rights situation in China when we made our bid. Your journalists only give human rights sporadic, selective coverage anyway. So why are you complaining at this late date? And here, as the context of the original bid and the tragic history of Falun Gong fully demonstrate, the Chinese are dead right.

Beijing's was always a blackmail bid. The IOC likes to profess a studied disinterest in politics, but that pose was only possible because of the equally studied neutrality by the United States and other Western countries towards Beijing's ambitions. I was a business consultant in Beijing during the bidding process, and it was common knowledge that the West would receive some much-needed political restraint from the Chinese in return for our support. It was whispered that the Beijing Olympics would buy peace in the Taiwan Strait for eight years, ensure continued economic liberalization, mollify runaway Chinese nationalism (by bolstering Chinese self-esteem), permit journalists to operate in a slightly more plausible working environment, and inhibit the Chinese leadership from overtly slaughtering its citizens.

When it comes to Taiwan and economic liberalization, China has technically lived up to its promises, pulling Taiwan into the Chinese orbit through business interests rather than by naval blockade or missile attack. In terms of nationalism, journalistic freedom, and human rights--well, best not to dwell on how that turned out--but in all fairness, the only one of these issues that the IOC appeared to be mildly serious about was human rights. Even there, it was always a same-bed-different-dreams deal. For Western business in China, "human rights" translates as: Please don't embarrass us publicly. For the Chinese government "human rights" was always translated within the prism of "social stability": How else can you ensure a smooth Olympics? And the way to ensure social stability was to neutralize the "five poisons"--Tibetan separatists, democracy activists, Taiwan independence supporters, Xinjiang freedom fighters, and Falun Gong practitioners. And here, again, the angry young Chinese men have a point concerning the hypocrisy of Western journalists.

It was all a charade. The blackmail bid took place in clear sight of the mindbending persecution of Falun Gong, an operation that had already mobilized China's state security forces on a scale that dwarfs the current Tibet crackdown. The West had three clear openings to bring the issue to a head: when the Beijing bid was nearing fruition in 2000, when an energized Falun Gong movement in the West emerged four years later with documentation that thousands had been murdered and over 100,000 had been thrown into labor camps, and finally in 2006 when credible reports of systematic organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners seeped out, pushing the potential death toll well into the tens of thousands.

I have interviewed some of the survivors. Roughly half of the Falun Gong practitioners who have emerged from the camps describe physical exams aimed at determining the health of their internal organs, along with close examination of corneas. Ears, genitals, and the other parts of the body usually scrutinized in medical exams--all of which have no value in the organ market--were routinely ignored. Yet it is a curious fact that American newspapers barely mentioned the targeted organ harvesting. Indeed, studies within the Falun Gong community demonstrate that the higher the Falun Gong death toll, the less the reporting. A former Beijing bureau chief of one of America's top networks accurately represented the average China journalist's view of Falun Gong in a candid conversation with me: The crackdown was indeed absurdly harsh, even by Chinese standards, but it was a drag to cover the story because "I hate both sides."

For American journalists, Falun Gong has three strikes against it. First, Falun Gong's emergence in 1999 took them by surprise, and journalists don't like feeling out of the loop. Second, reporters depend on the party's minimal cooperation for access and accreditation. Falun Gong is the party's enemy number one, as a Chinese spiritual movement from the heartland is more difficult to contain than a separatist movement like the Tibetans'. This meant the hot zone was not just in Lhasa, but everywhere, and that news stories had to be suppressed directly rather than just by limiting geographic access. Stories about persecution and torture could bring retaliation--blocked websites, detention, and, worst of all, loss of the journalist's ability to actually work. Stories that stuck the cult label on Falun Gong or, better still, avoided the issue altogether, ensured access.

The third strike against Falun Gong is that many Beijing-based journalists have gone slightly native. They see themselves as the arbiters of Chinese social progress. Falun Gong, with its insistence on traditional values--marriage and morality--looked like an enemy of the New China that journalists actually like: the hip, urban, ironic, way-cool place where cynical artists dish out scorn for crass Western commerciality. Falun Gong, simply put, is a Buddhist revival movement with all that entails: passion, talk of miracles, are-you-running-with-me-Master-Li individualism, and a reflexive mistrust of establishments and outside agendas. By contrast, the Tibetans had the far safer veneer of an ancient, well-established religion, and Hollywood's Richard Gere (and even some dimly remembered associations with tantric sex). Here, journalists intersected with their U.S.-based editors who not only tend to be suspicious of religion--particularly revivalist versions--but who also had no idea of how to incorporate the mass murder of Falun Gong's followers into the preferred storyline of China's amazing progress.

Thus, in public, foreign businessmen casually inserted anti-Falun Gong rhetoric into speeches to please their Chinese hosts. In private, when Chinese security needed targeted Internet surveillance technology to catch Falun Gong practitioners, Cisco provided it to their specifications. Oversight in Washington of this sort of activity lagged because politicians absorbed the distorted perception pumped out of China by many journalists and succumbed to the lobbying pressures of businessmen eager to cut deals with Chinese officials. And human rights groups appeared curiously unwilling to protest despite the scale of the Falun Gong persecution and the vehemence of the Chinese government's resolve to continue it. The record suggests an informal pact with the Chinese government to trade away mention of Falun Gong in exchange for minor concessions, such as scripted labor camp visits and legal exchanges.

Falun Gong is only one in a long historical line of atrocities the West has chosen to ignore while they were happening. But hating both sides is no longer a valid strategy for the Beijing Olympics. We are assisting in the construction of a simulacrum of an independent, modern society, while the reality is actually quite fascist in nature. Like its forerunners, it alternates between demonizing Western democracy and lusting for the tokens of Western legitimacy to help it maintain power over its citizens--the same citizens it so fears.

U.S. coverage of China has been weak and our policies inconsistent. Terribly so. But it doesn't render us incapable of doing the right thing. Falun Gong has been getting little press in the torch relay fracas. That's not surprising. As an indigenous Chinese movement, rather than a separatist one, Falun Gong has taken a neutral position on boycotting the Chinese Olympics, sensing correctly that it has become a matter of Chinese "face" that the Olympics continue. But we in the West have our own version of face, a genocide line that cannot be crossed without our identity beginning to crack. No matter how much we ignored the crying, the persecution of Falun Gong demonstrably crossed that line, and even if the Chinese leadership calls off the torch relay or makes an effort to resolve the Tibet situation, it is too late for this Olympics.

Boycotts don't work, but the political opening ceremony, for better or worse, is Beijing's big show--its dog party. Let's admit that we screwed up, quietly declare a no-fault boycott of any ceremonies, and move on. President Bush, please stay home.

Ethan Gutmann, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is the author of Losing the New China. He is writing a book entitled The New Chinese Resistance.