Tibet: the West can use the Olympics as a weapon against Beijing

Tibet: the West can use the Olympics

as a weapon against Beijing

Excerpts from Michael Portillo, The Sunday Times

Adolf Hitler’s glee at exploiting the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a showcase for Nazism turned to fury when the black American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals. The Chinese leadership must by now be wondering whether staging the Games in Beijing will bring the regime more accolades than brickbats. Be careful what you wish for, as Confucius probably said.

In defence of the Olympic movement, Berlin had been selected before the Nazis came to power. No such excuse covers the decision to award the coveted prize to Beijing. In 1989 the Chinese government crushed the peaceful protests in Tiananmen Square as the world looked on in horror. China still secured the Olympics and a propaganda triumph and has looked forward to showing off to the world.

The authorities must have reflected that other governments are rarely brave enough to boycott the Olympics. The Berlin Games proceeded even though the Nazis had by then implemented the infamous Nuremberg laws that deprived German Jews of basic human rights.

Admittedly the Americans led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics because Soviet troops had stormed Afghanistan (Russian invasion bad, American invasion good). China knew that, short of marching into neighbouring territory, nothing it did would put its show at risk.

All the indicators suggested that China would be given a soft ride. When President Jiang Zemin visited Tony Blair in 1999 the Metropolitan police treated pro-Tibet demonstrators roughly. Double-decker buses were used to shield the protest from Jiang’s sensitive eyes. As Washington became embroiled in the scandals of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition, not to mention the tremendous loss of civilian life in Iraq and Afghanistan, Premier Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, must have been confident that America would avoid dialogue on human rights.

In any case we are all in awe of China’s economic power. When Gordon Brown toured there last month, he talked of business opportunities. Prime ministers loathe being asked to raise human rights issues that threaten to interrupt the smiles, handshakes and toasts by which the success of visits are measured. Brown probably limited himself to the vaguest urging of reform.

China’s economic sway is such that it has undermined US foreign policy with impunity. America aims to use its muscle to shape a world that embraces western values.

In developing countries it insists that governments respect the rule of law and reduce corruption as a condition for trade and aid. China, on the other hand, has extended the hand of friendship to gruesome regimes (including Sudan’s). Beijing’s requirement for natural resources is its only consideration. Maybe it has enjoyed thwarting America’s attempts to export its liberal values.

So China had every reason to expect a trouble-free Olympics that would show its best face to the world. In Berlin the anti-Jewish notices were taken down in the weeks preceding the Games. In Beijing the use of cars has been restricted to reduce air pollution.

In the modern world governments are not the only players. Steven Spielberg, the film director, withdrew as artistic adviser to the Games’ ceremonies, remarking that his conscience did not allow him to continue while “unspeakable crimes” were being committed in Darfur.

His decision has transformed the situation. In that moment the Beijing Olympics flipped from being an opportunity for the Chinese government and became a threat. China’s deep concern that the Games should be a success provides those who oppose its policies with a narrow window of opportunity. It delivers leverage both to domestic dissidents and to the outside world, unparalleled since Tiananmen.

With the news blackout imposed by China on the country’s interior we cannot know whether the Tibetan protests are opportunistically linked to the forthcoming Games. But the Olympics are a political factor and the situation is dynamic. The eyes of the world are turned disapprovingly on Chinese policies.

“If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China and the Chinese in Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak out on human rights,” declared Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, before cheering crowds of Tibetans in northern India, where she had gone to meet the Dalai Lama. Such outbursts had not featured in China’s “script” for the Olympics.

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