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Hissing Dragon, Doused flame
DND | 15 Apr 2008

The shadow of human rights issue is finally catching up with China. Many inconvenient issues have realized that Olympics are the best time to confront both the brutal Chinese regime and the uneasy conscience of the west. The Tibet issue appears to have exposed the hollowness of the both and this time the liberal world is not prepared to allow China to ride rough shod over them as it had done in 1989.

Thirty-seven arrests were made in London when the Olympic torch passed through it as protesters tried to seize the torch and disrupt the relay.

At one point, the torch was transferred onto a bus to protect it from the demonstrators. “The Chinese have made sure that for a few hours, Paris will look like Tiananmen Square,” said a human right activist. “I think it’s shameful,” he added.

Paris did not look like that but the Olympic flame was repeatedly doused and as the runners looked dazed the police had to finally call off the attempt and escort it in a bus. The Mayor of a city that first saw the flag of liberty flying in modern times too expressed his hostility and with the major landmarks including Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame exhibiting symbols of protest the official welcome to the traditional torch too was cancelled. USA was no better and even if the official Chinese website following the progress of the torch might claim that the route was being peacefully traversed the world could see the magnitude of the support for the human rights of the Tibetans.

Earlier, in London the police had to repeatedly scuffle with pro-Tibet protesters, with one trying to snatch the torch and another to put it out with a fire extinguisher. Such was the serious threat to the torch that after an unpublicized change to the route, the Chinese ambassador carried the torch through Chinatown. The Chinese had also insisted on sending their own team for the safety of the torch and if the former Conservative M.P. and Olympic middle distance gold medal winner Sebastian Coe is to be believed they were thugs who pushed and wrestled others as well as him.

Obviously, this has raised a number of questions regarding not only the manner and criterion with which a city is given the right to host the games but also the utility of the torch being carried in a relay around the world. It also brings to the fore the debate about the spirit of the Games and the politics of the nations.

It would be futile to blame the Chinese to take advantage of the Games and make a statement about its increasing clout in the world. Other countries too have been guilty of this failing. Adolf Hitler’s Germany did it in 1936 and so has the USA done it in 1984. The attempt of the Soviet Union was thwarted by the boycott of the Moscow Olympics but other less ambitious nations have used the occasion to showcase themselves for the world. However, the case of China is much more complex for a few but extremely straightforward for many.

There is little doubt that China is a country that can no longer be ignored, not only because of its size and population but because of its increasing role in the world economy. It is this role that has made the USA and the west to turns a blind eye to the human rights record and also not subject it to the stringent social audit that other less important countries are subjected to. The cheap labor and liberal laws that help make its mass production of goods steal a march over those developing countries that adhere to certain universally accepted laws, have become a convenient part of the developed world’s economy. Hence, the USA and the west bends backward to appease a country that still has to answer for the Tiananmen Square massacre of protesting students in 1989.

Naïve students might wonder as to why the west never forgot the rolling of the Soviet tanks into Hungary in 1956 and the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to bring a premature end to the spring of Prague and why the rolling over of the tanks over students in Tiananmen Square is ignored. The answer lies in the economies of the western world that are still fueled by greed and profits. China was important and therefore it was being provided every opportunity to refurbish its image. Remember the time when all long distance records of women were being dwarfed by the Chinese runners? And, how it was being gloated that it was the ancient trick of a very ancient civilizations that was working? The coach claimed it was the turtle blood, a few others added the civilization had certain magical potions; and, the world and the Olympic authorities did not think of putting the Chinese athletes to doping tests immediately.

The fact that the one fifth of the world’s population was needed by the people who run sports for filling their deep pockets had become an over riding factor. With television and the sponsorship money, it was the viewership that was governing decisions. The confidence of that totalitarian state had grown so much that after adopting hockey it was planning to also adopt cricket, the game that is a hangover of the colonial era. But sport for the spirit of the game and harmony was probably never China’s goal, just as the Olympic spirit was not in the scheme of things for Hitler in 1936.

However, then as now, the best of designs got deflated. Jesse Owens exposed the superiority of the white Aryans then just as now the Tibetan question has come to haunt China. It has already raised many inconvenient questions even when the nations of the world seem to be bowing before the dragon. The protestors though are determined to awkwardly remind the western world that has gone a long way in creating Kosovo as an independent state that Tibet should no longer be ignored. Tibet, unlike Kosovo, does not demand independence and yet no effort has been made to exert pressure on China.

These voices have also embarrassed India. So embarrassed that when Baichung Bhutia, the captain of the Indian football team expressed his conscientious inability to participate in the relay run of the torch there were many voices calling for the separation of sports and politics. The embarrassment and the limited storming of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi has only aggravated the already uneasy and complex relationship between the two most populated countries of the world and China being China it is busy using even its own discomfiture to belittle and insult India. If waking up the Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao and summoning to the External Affairs office at 2 a.m. was not enough, it threatened to cut India out of the torch route if India did not do enough to rein in the Tibetan demonstrators.

In the process it has conveniently been ignored that the protest and show of solidarity for the people of Tibet in the west has been more damaging to the Chinese image than what could happen in India. With the Tibetan Government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh it is only natural that large number of Tibetans participate in the protests. But for some strange reason India appears to be diffident and defensive. Some say it is because it is to hold the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and its own human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir and north eastern states is suspect. But, as Soli Sorabjee says, the distinction must be seen and others made aware of it: India is battling armed militants and separatists whereas in Tibet Chinese army was trampling over monks who were demonstrating with only beads in their hands!

It is obvious that the damage was done by the International Olympic Association that gave the Games to Beijing. Now little can be done if the games have been appropriated by China. In future, though, care needs to be taken in not only allotting the Games but also desisting from making the torch ceremony a circus in order to generate public interest through increased television coverage. If this is not done then the Games will increasingly expose the high moral grounds that many nations take. Surely boycott would have been the war cry of USA and many western countries if instead of China it was Iran or North Korea that had been hosting the Games!