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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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.