For Part I of this series, please go here. And where were we?
When Beijing was competing for the 2008 Games, Chinese human-rights types — dissidents and their supporters — were split. Most were against the granting of the Games to Beijing, but some were for, arguing that having the Games would force China to open up, just a little. There was much talk of the “spotlight”: The spotlight would be on China, and would that help or hurt? Those opposed to the Beijing Games said that the spotlight had been on China before — for other sporting events and international conferences — and that this had caused the government to tighten its grip all the more. The government’s reasoning (in this view)? Foreigners are coming, and we have to look sharp, so no trouble-making is allowed. All undesirable elements must be swept away. We have to show a happy, wholesome, united front.
One Chinese-American journalist said at the time, “The Communists create an atmosphere, a mood, in which they can do anything.”
While lobbying for the ’08 Games, the Communists made all sorts of promises. One official said the Games “are an opportunity to foster democracy, improve human rights, and integrate China with the rest of the world.” That was the line, taken by all supporters of Beijing 2008 (the “business community” included). This same official said, “By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human rights.”
Okay: How is China faring? The Communists are cracking heads precisely because of the Olympics — which is a point that the most unflinching observers keep making. Even the minor courtesy of an Olympic Pause has not been implemented. The question is whether Beijing will somehow be held to account. The safe bet, I believe, is no.
‐For years, there was very little protest in the West over the coming of the Beijing Games. A small event occurred in Pasadena, Calif., where the annual Rose Parade takes place. The PRC entered a float — and some human-rights supporters were not happy about it. Pointing to the daily brutalities in which Beijing engages, they tried to keep the float from participating in an American institution. They did not succeed.
The Los Angeles Times reported,
The fight over the float . . . underscores the divide in Southern California’s Chinese American community. The float is sanctioned by the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee but is financed by wealthy Chinese Americans as well as Pasadena-based label maker Avery Dennison Corp., which has major business ties with China.
Among those most strongly opposing the float were Falun Gong practitioners, whose fellows are viciously persecuted in China. The Times later noted that, “despite evidence” of Falun Gong’s persecution, these men and women “have failed to generate lasting sympathy from the Chinese American community at large.” That is a major understatement, regrettably.
About the (small) push for Chinese human rights, Jane Hallinger, president of the Pasadena Sister Cities Committee, said, “It’s foolish. If [America] were lily-clean, we might have the right to take a stand.” That is a particular American attitude. When the New York Philharmonic decided to go to North Korea, to play a concert, some human-rights supporters were not happy about it. And the Philharmonic’s conductor, Lorin Maazel, said,
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw bricks, should they? Is our standing as a country — the United States — is our reputation all that clean when it comes to prisoners and the way they are treated? Have we set an example that should be emulated all over the world? If we can answer that question honestly, I think we can then stop being judgmental about the errors made by others.
A gulag — for that matter, a terror state — is a pretty large “error.” But there’s no need to be judgmental about it.
A fundraising person for the PRC was quoted by the Times as saying, “This is a very small, small group” — the people who opposed the PRC’s Rose Parade float. And she was no doubt right. This is what is always said about advocates of human rights in China: They are small in number, they are “separatist,” they are “splittists.” (Those last two words are special PRC epithets.) They are dismissed as an annoying fringe, probably mentally disturbed.
Anyway, as the Times eventually said — in a somewhat gloating headline — “Opposition to China float fails to blossom: The Rose Parade entry is ready to roll as efforts to link it to human rights wilt.”
‐So, there was not much opposition to Chinese oppression in China. But one issue did arouse the world — Beijing’s support of the genocidal regime in Khartoum. Sudan’s Darfur region, where genocide has long been committed, is a popular cause, attracting the attention of movie actors and other celebrities. It’s funny what causes will “catch” and what will not. Darfur (unlike the earlier genocide in Sudan’s south) definitely “caught.”
Beijing is the major backer of Khartoum. And the actress Mia Farrow, for one, called for a boycott of the “Genocide Olympics” (Beijing ’08). She put particular pressure on Steven Spielberg, who was advising Beijing on the theatrical elements of the Olympics. “Does Mr. Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games?” she asked. (Riefenstahl made the infamous film Olympia, about ’36.)
Spielberg withdrew from the Olympics, citing Sudan. The theater is now mainly in the hands of two other famed directors: Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee. Interesting about the latter is that he is from Taiwan, and his films are regularly banned by Beijing. But there he is, perhaps influenced by the vaunted Chinese pride.
In March of this year, another issue aroused the world: Tibet. China cracked down there, as it periodically does. And the world minded, rather a lot — at least for some weeks. Like Darfur, Tibet is a popular cause, attracting its share of celebrities. Many who otherwise have little interest in the atrocities committed by Communists are interested in Tibet because they are likewise interested in Tibetan Buddhism. And Tibet’s leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, is a celebrated figure around the world, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.
So, virtually all the protest against China has centered around Tibet and Sudan. It has not centered around the brutalities that Beijing inflicts on ordinary Chinese every day: arbitrary arrest, torture, murder, the repression of religion, the laogai (gulag), the denial of human and civil rights, the organ harvesting, etc. It was two relatively peripheral issues — Tibet and Sudan — that got the world cross with Beijing. But at least the regime’s behavior has not been ignored altogether.
‐They were very unlucky in the timing of things, were the Chinese Communists. Their head-cracking in Tibet began just two weeks before the start of the Olympic Torch Relay — which they had dubbed the “Journey of Harmony.” Tibet still had the world’s attention.
The torch was lit in Olympia, Greece, of course, where Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee, addressed a crowd. He was interrupted by protesters — Chinese officials are not used to being interrupted by protesters, ever. Three members of Reporters Without Borders, that brave and invaluable group, unfurled a banner showing the traditional Olympic rings as handcuffs. Shortly after, “a Tibetan woman doused herself in red paint and lay in the road in front of a torch runner,” in the words of a New York Times report.
A report in the Australian said, “Games organisers and Athens security forces had promised such a disruption would not be possible” — but it was. Western governments and police departments have been very keen on helping the PRC keep protesters at bay. But they have not always succeeded.
Tibetans in Europe organized a counter-relay, called the Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay. When they had their torch-lighting in Olympia, officials from the Chinese embassy in Athens were present, filming the participants. That is standard PRC practice, carried out on foreign soil with no interference, and barely a murmur.
As China’s torch — the Olympic torch — made its way to various major capitals, pro-Tibet protesters made themselves heard. In London, they committed what the PRC press called “vile misdeeds”: They tried to douse the torch, for example. The same sort of thing happened in Paris (where a banner showing those Olympic rings as handcuffs was hung on the Eiffel Tower). Same thing in San Francisco (where a “Free Tibet” banner was hung from the Golden Gate Bridge). The torch-bearing was chaotic, unsmooth. One of the bearers in Paris said, “Nothing is happening as it was meant to.”
Especially galling to people were the actions of the special Chinese security squadron, running along with the torch. They behaved like goons and thugs. A couple of torch-bearers whipped on armbands depicting the Tibetan flag; the squadron was lightning-quick to rip them off. And this was one of their gentler actions. One of the London torch-bearers said of the squadron, “They were very robotic, full-on . . . They were barking orders like, ‘Run’ and ‘Stop,’ and I was like, ‘Who are these people?’”
Their official name was the Sacred Flame Protection Unit. And they came off as Chinese brownshirts. One Western leader, Australia’s Kevin Rudd, let it be known that this protection unit would not be welcome in Canberra, when the torch came through.
In London, a Chinese official said, “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.” That took real effrontery to say: In his country, the PRC, it is never the right time for people to voice their political views — unless those views perfectly conform to the official line. Even Westerners, who are presumably safe, just about never make a peep in China.
One who did, not long ago, was Bjork, the one-named Icelandic pop star. At a concert in Shanghai, she sang a song called “Declare Independence,” and then yelled “Tibet!” several times. Afterward, the Chinese Ministry of Culture declared, “We shall never tolerate any attempt to separate Tibet from China and will no longer welcome any artists who deliberately do this.”
I, for one, will bless the name of Bjork forever — no matter how she sings.
Back in the PRC, people did not see interruptions of the torch relay — because, whenever there was such an interruption, Chinese television went blank. When interruptions were reported, they were explained as the work of a few “hooligans,” “separatists,” and “splittists” — you know the lingo. These are said to be people who hate China and are trying to blacken its name. The government misses few opportunities to inflame Chinese nationalism, which is one of the strongest and ugliest forces on earth.
Friends, you are welcome to return tomorrow, for Part III of “The Road to Beijing.”