Dominic Lawson: Why China might have Olympic regrets

It is pathetic that only violence on the part of the Tibetans has galvanised Western leaders

Tuesday 25 March 2008 01:00 GMT

There will be no international boycott of the Olympics in Beijing. By the time the Games are over, however, even the Chinese Government might be wishing that its country had never been chosen to host them.

The disruption yesterday by pro-Tibetan demonstrators of the Athens launch of the Olympic torch relay is just the first trickle of what will become a tidal wave of embarrassment for the colonial Communist rulers of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Tibet.

In fact, the Chinese Government will be fortunate if it is only the Tibetan independence movement which seeks to exploit the intense media focus on Beijing as the 29th Games draws near. A preview of the possibilities was provided at the ceremony three months ago launching China Central Television's coverage of the 2008 Olympics. A popular Beijing newscaster, Hu Ziwei, grabbed the microphone and stunned the audience – not to mention millions of viewers – by shouting repeatedly, "If the Chinese have no humane values to present to the world, what is the purpose of the Olympics after all?"

Hu was jailed on charges of "damaging the name of China and the Olympic Games". We are told that she will be released when the Games are safely over; but the difficulty for the rulers in Beijing is that there will be protesters whose identities even their immense domestic intelligence services will not have been able to ascertain.

This problem is by no means peculiar to the People's Republic of China in the year 2008. The Olympics have long been a focus for spectacular displays of political opposition. Forty years ago, the run-up to the Mexico City Games was characterised by rioting against the Government of Gustavo Ordaz: 10 days before the Games started there was what amounted to a massacre in Mexico City, when hundreds of demonstrators were shot by the police and military. This, however, was before the days of 24-hour news television: its impact was minimal compared to what would ensue if something similar happened in Beijing this summer.

In 1972, West Germany would have had the highest hopes when Munich held the Games: it seemed a glorious opportunity to eradicate the memories of the only previous occasion on which Germany was the host – in 1936, under the rule of the Nazis. Instead, it had to endure the public horror of the "Munich Massacre" in which 12 Israeli athletes were slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists. This is the "event" for which the 1972 Olympics is most remembered – by everyone except track and field anoraks.

Most terrifyingly for the occupants of Beijing's Zhong Nan Hai, it was probably the presence of the international media which lay behind the timing of the student protests of 1989. The Tiananmen Square massacre has rather obliterated the outside world's memories of what happened immediately beforehand: it was the occasion of the first visit of a Russian leader since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s.

The world's news media had flown in to Beijing to broadcast the encounters between the charismatic reformist Mikhail Gorbachev and the gerontocrats of the Chinese Communist Party. The students could see that this was an opportunity to demonstrate to the world their demands for similar reforms in their own country – a demonstration suppressed with a brutality that only underlined the Chinese Communist Party's almost pathological inability to cope with any genuine form of political opposition.

A similar inability has disfigured Beijing's handling of Tibet. The 72-year old Dalai Lama long ago abandoned the idea of achieving independence for his people: his demands do not go much further than advocacy of some sort of cultural autonomy. Far from calling for a boycott of the Olympics, he has actually criticised those who have pressed for such an ostracisation of Beijing. Yet the Chinese Communists have continued to denounce the old man with the vehemence and the language which in earlier years they applied to such mortal enemies as Chiang-Kai Shek.

Thus the Beijing-appointed Communist Party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, has spent much of his three years in the job hurling gratuitous insults at the Dalai Lama. This month he described the Tibetan spiritual leader as "a wolf in monk's robes, a devil with a human face, but the heart of a beast". On the same occasion, he told officials that "we are now engaged in a fierce blood-and-fire battle with the Dalai clique, a life and death battle between us and the enemy".

Zhang does not just use this sort of language to inspire the necessary vigour among Communist Party officials: in an interview two years ago with the German magazine Spiegel, he denounced the Dalai Lama's followers in these terms: "Those who do not love their country are not qualified to be human beings. This is a matter of commonsense."

Zhang's inflammatory rhetoric is not, of course, the worst thing that the Tibetan people have had to endure. While it is true that the Tibetans might well be materially better off under the Communists than ruled by a God-King, the extirpation of an entire culture causes pain and anger that cannot be assuaged by the existence of a new railway line, or sports centre. Beijing has offered Han Chinese great incentives to settle in Tibet – including an exemption from the one-child policy for those who marry Tibetans. The result has been a resettlement which threatens to make Tibetans a minority in their own so-called "autonomous region".

This fear of cultural annihilation doubtless lies behind the ugly rioting in Lhasa and elsewhere, which has seen the trashing and burning of Han Chinese shops – and, indeed, murders. It is both pathetic and predictable that it is only physical violence on the part of the Tibetans that has galvanised Western leaders (with the honourable exception of Angela Merkel) into some sort of rhetorical action.

This was summed up pretty well by a Tibetan exile in Dharamsala last week, who told a reporter how her 21-day hunger strike in front of the UN building in New York had achieved nothing. Well, have you ever heard of Dolma Choephel? Ms Choephel, of the Central Committee of Tibetan Youth, told Spiegel with some bitterness: "The world only reacts to violence – when a bomb explodes or a house goes up in flames."

It was inevitable that the Chinese refusal to deal with the peaceful demands of the Dalai Lama led to a situation in which his own people have started to advocate violent resistance. Alas for those angry young Tibetans, the Chinese can utter the words made famous by the BBC's invented master-race, the Daleks: "resistance is futile".

The terrible truth is that they are probably right. No matter what demonstrations are mounted during the Beijing Olympics, no matter how much attention the outside world pays – when the Games are over, the Tibetans will continue their state-sponsored slide into oblivion.

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