Leading article: Protest is a price Beijing must pay for the Olympics

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The Independent Online

One of the hallmarks of insecure totalitarian states is their propensity to prosecute, and then lock up, those who dare to think and say something different. The conviction and imprisonment of Hu Jia, one of China's leading human rights campaigners, tells us something important about that country – something just as important as the exponential growth rates, the forests of new skyscrapers and the swelling pride with which Beijing is preparing to host the 2008 Olympics.

Mr Hu has been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison after being found guilty of "inciting subversion of state power and the socialist system". That such a crime still features on the Chinese statute book is an indictment of the system in itself. Coming hard on the heels of the recent violence in Tibet, Mr Hu's conviction should banish any idea that China is – by any recognisable standard – a free country. In Tibet, the clashes were the latest expression of a whole people's resentment of cultural and demographic oppression. The treatment of Mr Hu demonstrates that free-thinking individuals are seen as similarly dangerous.

China's touchiness in the face of such challenges is, of course, far more a sign of weakness than of strength. This vast country is in the throes of cataclysmic economic and social change, but political development lags far behind. Beijing's priority has been to modernise every other aspect of the country first, with the ruling Communist Party altering its form, but not its nature, to keep its hold on power.

Whether this will permit China to avoid the ructions that precipitated the collapse of communism in Europe remains a question for the longer term. But the imbalance the authorities have perpetuated between economic and political freedom was well known when Beijing was awarded the Olympics. The rest of the world implicitly accepted this compromise – in the hope, on the part of some, that such global exposure would hasten a process of opening and liberalisation.

Where China appears to have miscalculated was in believing the great sporting celebration could be completely separated from politics. It is not only that Western human rights campaigners were bound to see the Beijing Olympics as an opportunity – indeed, they would have been remiss not to do so. It is also that, in this increasingly interconnected world, groups and individuals inside China have understood the very same thing. In recent days, it seems that the protests in Tibet have been copied by separatist groups inside Xinjiang, a region populated by mainly Muslim Uighurs. The risks there – for the activists and the Chinese authorities – are as high as they remain in Tibet.

To engage in any sort of protest or dissident activity in China takes enormous courage. Those who dare to speak out deserve outside support. The demonstrations that have accompanied the lighting and progress of the Olympic flame so far are something the Chinese authorities will have to get used to. The flame must be protected – and we are confident that it will be, as it is ceremonially borne around London tomorrow. Equally, those who so desire have a right to protest.

What action, if any, Western leaders should take, were China to step up its repression against dissent, is another question. But President Nicolas Sarkozy's suggestion that the EU might consider boycotting the opening ceremony would hit China where it hurts – in the national image department – without jeopardising the sport. It would be wrong to declare such a boycott now, but it would also be wrong to rule it out. All options must be left open. The Beijing Olympics have given China a unique opportunity to showcase its achievements; its leaders cannot complain if others, too, seize their chance to be heard.