Every few years, the Chinese government bares its fangs. Unfortunately, on this occasion the timing was all wrong, with the Olympics just around the corner.
The recent unrest in Tibet—and the heavy-handed official response—has spurred calls for a boycott of what was meant to be China’s debutante party. The European Union is meeting this week to consider whether member countries should attend the opening ceremony. Prince Charles has already indicated that he won’t be going.
But Dubya is sorely in need of a spine. Apparently, so vital are the investments of U.S. multinationals in China (and so crucial Chinese investment in U.S. treasury bonds) that Bush has ruled out any boycott. “The BBC's Jack Izzard in Washington says the delay in Mr Bush's response is a measure of how delicate relations are between the U.S. and China—two countries whose huge economies are deeply interlinked,” the news service reports. No kidding, Sherlock! All the fulminations of the Bush Administration against the Burmese junta after its crackdown last year seem completely empty now.
The unrest in Tibet has taken a huge toll, and has attracted global attention. Perhaps up to 140 people have been killed in the violence, with protests again flaring up two days ago in the Ganzi prefecture of Sichuan province after a period of relative quietness. “China's assertion that protests outside of Lhasa have faded after a massive influx of troops across Tibet and nearby areas was shaken when state media announced the Ganzi unrest,” reports Reuters.
It would make matters simple if this were a morality play, with the Tibetans being the unvarnished heroes and the Chinese government the unquestionable villains. But things on the ground are more complicated. Some of the violence was directed by the Tibetans at the non-Tibetans living in the province, particularly at migrant shopkeepers and their properties. This violence has been so intense that the Dalai Lama has now twice threatened to resign if it doesn’t stop.
At the same time, as Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin points out, “the protests in Lhasa started peacefully, and only in subsequent days, after repeated police suppression, did they become violent.” And the Chinese security forces don’t seem to know the meaning of crowd control. “To quell the protests that continued in Lhasa and Sangchu County, Chinese security forces responded by beating protesters, firing live ammunition, surrounding Ganden, Drepung and Sera monasteries, and cutting phone lines into the monasteries, according to media reports and sources in the capital, Lhasa,” states Human Rights Watch.
Now, as much as I was enamored of the Dalai Lama when we met, his tactics are not above reproach, either. Patrick French has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times where he critiques the Tibetan leader on several counts. First, in spite of claiming to be a follower of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama seem to have understood the notion of Gandhi’s “passive resistance” very differently from Gandhi himself, interpreting it literally, instead of urging Tibetans to engage in massive civil disobedience. (Gandhi actually hated the term “passive resistance,” preferring instead the almost untranslatable satyagraha to describe his approach.) Second, the Dalai Lama has included the Tibetan-populated regions outside Tibet proper in his definition of Tibet and has let the West-based Tibet lobby often set the agenda, hence minimizing the chances of a compromise with the Chinese regime.
But this doesn’t let the Chinese government off the hook. China’s hosting of the Olympics is a complete contradiction of the Olympic ideal. From the Muslims of Xinjiang and the Buddhists of Tibet to Chinese Christians and the followers of Falun Gong, the victims are manifold. Now the Beijing Olympics have been irrevocably tarnished, notwithstanding George Bush’s decision to still participate.
Bad timing, you guys at Party headquarters in Beijing.