Apr 24th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Rather than shout themselves hoarse, maybe foreign and Chinese protesters could try talking
WHATEVER hopes there were that this August’s Beijing Olympics would be a festival of fun and friendship with a bit of sport thrown in are fading fast. The event was intended to mark China’s reintegration into the world, and re-emergence as a great power. Instead, preparations for the games have degenerated into some of the ugliest verbal confrontations for years between China and its critics. Passions and tempers are running high on both sides. On China’s, even those suggesting something as innocuous as a dialogue are being pilloried as “traitors”. Foreign journalists have received death threats. Far from being a celebration of China’s new openness, the Olympics risk vindicating those abroad who argued it was not a fit host and those at home who think a fearful, envious world will never give a resurgent China its due.
As in 1999, after NATO‘s bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, or in 2005, when anti-Japanese protests in China threatened to get out of hand, China’s government finds itself in an awkward fix. It wants to rein in the popular anger before it descends into violence, or turns on the government itself. Yet its own policies and its control of information have stoked the anger in the first place.
That is not to deny that the angry Chinese nationalists who have deluged the internet with their splenetic outpourings and staged protests in China (see article) have a point. Coverage in the Western press of unrest in Tibet has been rather one-sided. It has stressed the harsh Chinese crackdown on peaceful protests and tended to overlook the violence by Tibetans. For most Chinese observers, what happened was an outburst of vicious racist thuggery directed at ethnic Han Chinese in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. And the authorities, incomprehensibly, tolerated it until 19 people had been killed.
Similarly, views of the protests attracted by the round-the-world tour on which China is taking the Olympic flame differ sharply. In the West most attention has been paid to the exploits of pro-Tibetan protesters, such as hanging banners high above the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and the menacing behaviour of the Chinese torch guards. In China, the defining moment was when a protester in France tried to grab the flame from a female torchbearer in a wheelchair. How dare the outside world, runs the refrain of a legion of Chinese bloggers, lecture China about uncivilised behaviour?
Of course, the antics of unruly demonstrators in Paris cannot be used to condone or justify Chinese repression in Tibet. Although it remains unclear exactly what happened in Lhasa, it is certain that Chinese police shot protesters in neighbouring Sichuan; that thousands of Tibetans have been detained; and that others are forced to undergo hated “patriotic re-education”, which many see as aimed at obliterating their own culture. Tibetans have real grievances, after decades of cultural discrimination and economic marginalisation.
All over bar the shouting
China’s government cannot admit that. Nor, having blamed the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, for the unrest, is it easy to open talks with him. So it has closed the obvious path to reconciliation with its Tibetan minority. Having lied to its people about Tibet for so long, how could it explain to them a new, less hostile policy? It seems also to have convinced many of its people of the truth of two other egregious lies: that criticism of China’s government is an attack on the Chinese people, and that dialogue is a sign of weakness. In fact, both foreign and Chinese protesters might learn something from each other. But it is hard to learn with one hand holding a megaphone and the other clenched into a fist.