Politics & Policy

The Road to Beijing, Part IV

This is Part IV of this series — for the previous parts, please go here, here, and here.

After the Tibet crackdown, a discussion began about what democratic leaders should do: Should they boycott the Beijing Games, or the opening ceremony, in a symbolic gesture? (Virtually no one suggested the pulling out of teams.) Three who said quickly they would not attend the Olympics at all were Merkel of Germany, Tusk of Poland, and Klaus of the Czech Republic. All three of these people grew up under Communism.

Merkel is an especially interesting case: Her government implied that her non-attendance had nothing particularly to do with Tibet. It could well be that she simply doesn’t like the idea of the Games’ being held in a Communist country — in a police state. And Germany, incidentally, is China’s biggest trading partner in Europe. Also incidentally, Merkel took the step of receiving the Dalai Lama — a step that angered Beijing considerably.

The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, is not attending the opening ceremony, although he is sending his sports minister, and he himself will attend the closing ceremony. France’s Sarkozy will be at the opening — he said for a long time he was unsure.

And his foreign minister has had interesting things to say, as always. He is Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders. There are few proponents of human rights so strong. He said that economic decisions can sometimes come “at the expense of human rights” — and that a boycott, though a good idea, “seems unrealistic.” He further said, “There are a lot of good ideas that can’t be put into practice.”

There is a certain French tristesse about that — or you could call it mere defeatism.

A quick word about Mirek Topolánek, the prime minister of the Czech Republic. (Klaus is the president.) Couple of weeks ago, Topolánek announced that he would not attend the opening ceremony — he would, however, travel to Beijing, to support Czech athletes. During the press conference in which he made this announcement, he wore a Tibetan-flag pin on his lapel. That took real cheek. Beijing was livid, saying that no official would meet with Topolánek. He seems undisturbed.

Many have raised the question, Does attendance at the opening ceremony equal an endorsement of the Chinese government? A Human Rights Watch official said, “Attendance has been turned into endorsement, and endorsement without significant progress in exchange is wrong.” And yet, say others, a boycott would mortally insult the Chinese people — which leads to the question, Can the people be separated from the government, in instances like this? It is tricky.

President George W. Bush is going to the opening ceremony, in a display of “realism” for which he gets precious little credit from those who favor “realism” and decry Bush’s “absolutism.” His national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said on television that skipping the opening ceremony would be a “cop-out.” The way he put it was, “I think, unfortunately, a lot of countries say, ‘Well, if we say that we are not going to the opening ceremonies, we’ve checked the box on Tibet.’ That’s a cop-out.”

But ways to express displeasure — and solidarity with the persecuted — are not necessarily plentiful.

‐The International Olympic Committee is quite unhappy that trouble is being made — not by Communist China, but by critics of its behavior. IOC president Jacques Rogge huffed, “Politics invited itself into sports. We didn’t call for politics to come.” “Politics” is a funny word to use in this case: Objection to crushing people (as in Tibet) is “politics”? A regard for basic human rights is “politics”? That is a terribly broad definition.

Rogge said, “The Olympic brand is extremely strong . . . because of one overriding factor: The people of the world want to find a place where there is unity.” And “unity” seems to mean, “Shut up about persecution.”

The IOC chief further said, “Tell them that, whatever they have seen and heard, the Games will be very well-organized.” No doubt about that — a police state can certainly organize. “Tell them that we will rebound from this current crisis,” he said. He meant protests over Tibet. “The Olympic brand is strong,” and corporate sponsors are showing “great solidarity and support.”

Funny, “solidarity” used to mean, for example, standing with Lech Walesa and the Polish trade unions against the Communist government that ruled them. Now it means . . . not spoiling the CCP’s “coming-out party.”

In his reaction to the pro-Tibet protests, Rogge reminded athletes of the Olympic rules. They may respond freely to reporters’ questions. But “the venues of the Games are not a place for proactive political or religious expression.” And “sanctions and penalties will be applied in any cases considered to be a breach of IOC policy.”

Free World teams seem eager to maintain “peace.” As the Washington Post said, “the Belgian Olympic Committee announced that it will not permit its athletes to make political statements, verbally or sartorially [that must mean Tibetan armbands!], in Olympic venues. The British Olympic Association similarly muzzled its athletes, who will be expelled from the team if they talk about political issues anywhere at all.” Would Gladstone, Disraeli, and Churchill applaud?

A sports daily in Italy reported that China has put the Bible on its list of items that cannot be brought into the country. Whether Bibles will be confiscated remains to be seen. What is sure is that Beijing is taking few chances with religion. The IOC requires a religious center at the Olympic village. And, as The Economist reported, China has broken with traditional Olympic practice and “not invited foreigners to serve as chaplains.” Instead, the staff at the center “will belong to China’s state-approved churches.” Oh, sure.

‐If anyone is more concerned than the Chinese Communists that the Beijing Olympics come off without disturbance, it is Western businessmen, who have invested millions. The New York Times editorialized that, “given [China’s] mighty economic power, nobody really wants to antagonize Beijing.” That is a major understatement. Corporate sponsors were appalled at the harassment of the Olympic Torch Relay. One company (Samsung) said nervously, “We believe the Olympic Games are not the place for demonstrations, and we hope that all people attending the Games recognize the importance of this.” The Wall Street Journal reported, “It appears that most sponsors have made the decision to refrain from criticizing Beijing rather than risk angering the Chinese government” — another world-class understatement.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned a 2001 column by the late A. M. Rosenthal. I will quote it again. Referring to the PRC, he said, “No other dictatorship has ever had more power in the United States.” And he said that, come the ’08 Olympics, he hoped it would be seen that “not all Americans . . . mistake the dollar for God.”

‐It is beyond dispute that the Games mean a great deal to China — to the Chinese people, not merely to the Communist party that rules them. Sample just one report, from the Associated Press:

The upcoming Beijing Olympics is more than just a point of pride for China — it’s such an important part of the national consciousness that nearly 3,500 children have been named for the event . . . Most of the 3,491 people with the name “Aoyun,” meaning Olympics, were born around the year 2000, as Beijing was bidding to host the 2008 Summer Games, the Beijing Daily reported, citing information from China’s national identity card database.

Ah, yes, the identity-card database — another police-state touch. At any rate, Free World governments have to figure out a way to make its points to the Chinese government — if they have points — while respecting the sensitivities of the Chinese population.

‐In the last months, it has become clear that how you stand on the Olympics is a reflection of how you stand on China in general. Soft-liners are soft, hard-liners are hard. There is a school of thought that says nothing, nothing must ever be done that offends the Chinese Communists. Of boycotting the opening ceremony, one typical U.S. columnist said, “It would be a deadly insult and humiliation to an insecure government that would not forgive or forget.” Another columnist warned of “inflaming Chinese nationalism and making Beijing more obdurate.”

You can read such sentiments in every newspaper and every magazine in the West.

The problem is, almost everything seems to offend the Chinese Communists. Nothing in the world is easier to do than to offend the Chinese Communists, except perhaps to offend the radical Muslims. If the wind blows slightly crosswise, you have offended these people. And we are constantly warned: If you irk the Chinese, you will cause an explosion.

We are constantly told that the Chinese continue to feel tremendous hurt over the Opium Wars, which took place 150 years ago. It weighs heavily on their conscience, this humiliation by the West. They think about it night and day. What about the indignities and horrors that the CCP has inflicted on the Chinese people for 60 years? Why isn’t recent history, not to mention the present, more important than long-ago wars? This is a mysterious challenge of psychology.

‐Soft-liners virtually beg the Chinese government to behave itself, lest anti-Communists have reason to criticize the ’08 Games. Sometimes these Westerners seem more nervous for the Chinese than the Chinese seem for themselves. Lord Malloch-Brown in Britain is a typical example of the breed, saying to the ChiComs, “Take care not to wreck your coming-out party.” But Communist rulers aren’t going to stop behaving like Communist rulers just because the Olympic Games are approaching. It is asking them to throw off their nature.

Some Westerners have not been silent, even on issues other than Tibet and Darfur. (The Falun Gong, as always, gets very little support.) PEN America, the writers’ group, delivered a petition to the Chinese at the U.N., demanding the release of their fellow writers in prison. This petition was signed by Salman Rushdie and other major figures. Human Rights Watch has been on China’s tail, protesting the abuses that the government has committed in the name of the Olympics — in the name of their sanitization. The group says,

Human Rights Watch takes no position on a boycott of the Games, but believes that the Olympics are a unique and appropriate moment for world attention to focus on China’s human rights record, and an important opportunity for China’s government to make demonstrable improvements.

‐Beijing authorities are deeply nervous about what may occur at the Games. The state’s number one, Hu Jintao, was quoted in the People’s Armed Police News. (Do you subscribe?) He said, “Without security guarantees there cannot be a successful Olympic Games, and without security guarantees the national image will be lost” — lost. The mayor of Beijing, Wang Qishan, said, “We have to have a good Olympics, otherwise not only will our generation lose face but also our ancestors” — our ancestors.

David Pryce-Jones and others tell us about shame and honor in the Middle East; the shame-and-honor equation in China is powerful as well.

‐There are several things to watch, as the Games unfold. For example, will the PRC delay or block the broadcast of the Games, if there are protests? There is concern about that. Also, how intrusive will the PRC be in the lives and affairs of visitors? The U.S. State Department has already warned Americans traveling to the Games:

All visitors should be aware that they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public or private locations. All hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times. Hotel rooms, residences and offices may be accessed at any time without the occupant’s consent or knowledge.

Why are the Olympic Games being held in a place like this?

That concludes Part IV of this series — see you tomorrow for the finale.

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