The torch, boycotts and Tibet

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

The Beijing Games is shaping up as a public relations disaster for the Chinese Communist Party. Four months from the opening ceremony and global protests against the torch relay are gathering speed. Tibetan activists are successfully highlighting their cause to the world, and the international route of the torch is now in serious doubt.

Demonstrators in London caused a security breach and severe embarrassment to the organisers. The London 2012 Olympics chief was overheard calling Chinese officials guarding the torch as “thugs”. The Paris leg of the relay was cancelled after protests, although China’s Foreign Ministry denied this was the case.

Australia’s Olympic chief, John Coates, appears resigned to the reality of months of controversy surrounding Beijing’s authoritarianism and pressure is growing on Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to boycott the opening ceremony. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has urged avoiding a boycott, though Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has encouraged President George W. Bush to take a stand.

International calls to boycott the Games are accelerating. London’s Independent editorialised this week that London’s torch fiasco was reminiscent of Hitler’s attempt at the 1936 Olympics to showcase Nazi Germany. The paper’s columnist Johann Hari argued that British athletes should take part in the August Games if the Chinese release the country’s 10 greatest human rights activists, invite the Dalai Lama to Beijing to talk and allow a legitimate UN peacekeeping force into Darfur.

The Chinese people have been largely shielded from the torch relay protests though the local media showed brief shots of the London scuffles. Chinese bloggers were incensed at what they viewed as anti-Beijing media coverage on CNN and BBC and millions of web users signed an online petition protesting biased Western media coverage of the recent Tibetan uprising. Interestingly, one of the Chinese torchbearers was interviewed before arriving in London and spoke of his pride at being involved and dreamed that “one day one of my kids will be able to compete in a future Olympic Games and even win a gold medal.”

Chinese authorities have attempted to counter the negative global coverage of its aggression in Tibet. One online story quoted a Tibetan author who said the Dalai Lama had “never done anything good” and was ruining Tibet in the name of human rights and religion. An opinion piece warned America to butt out of criticising China’s behaviour and again alleged that the Dalai Lama was the organiser of the recent violence. An Australian eyewitness has provided an alternative view.

More ominously, China has threatened to increase its “re-education” campaign against Tibetans. Officials called on Buddhist monks to be Chinese patriots. Another oppressed ethnic group, the Uighur Muslims, are also now openly rebelling against Chinese rule in a clear attempt to gain international attention.

Human rights activists are determined to use the Olympics as a platform to highlight China’s global responsibilities. A leading New York Times columnist wrote this week that China had to face some “greater truths” about its failed policies in Tibet. Pressure is increasing on Western internet multinationals doing business in repressive regimes to institute better mechanisms to avoid assisting persecution of dissidents.

It is always important to maintain perspective, however. A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that a majority of Chinese polled believe that the internet should be “controlled” by the government, a majority believed the information they read on government websites and “an influential and highly informed group of elite Chinese bloggers continues to test the limits and vigilance of the censors.”

Censorship is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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