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Last Updated: Monday, 17 March 2008, 06:50 GMT
Tibet adds to China's Olympic woes
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Chinese armoured vehicle in Lhasa
China imposes its control in Tibet
A senior Chinese diplomat told a European China watcher recently that China felt bewildered by the criticism it is getting in advance of the Olympic games and was inexperienced at handling it.

China was clearly taken aback by the resignation of the film director Steven Spielberg as an adviser to the games.

And just as China was hoping that the Spielberg affair had died down, along comes Tibet.

China seems not to have fully understood the extent to which the Olympic games exposes the host's policies to criticism.

Britain will find the same in 2012.

The Chinese government had hoped that its policy of partial opening would be enough. Since 2007, for example, foreign journalists are meant to be allowed to travel freely to much of China, though of course Tibet was immediately put out of bounds once the protests started. The old habits kicked in.

Bigger problem

Tibet is potentially a much bigger problem for China than the resignation of a Hollywood director as "artistic adviser" to the Beijing Olympics.

Steven Spielberg was protesting that China had not used its links with Sudan to help bring an end to violence in Darfur.

The publicity in that case was not good for China's aim of presenting the Olympics as the moment in which its "peaceful rise" was accepted worldwide.

But China is not directly responsible for Darfur. It is directly responsible for Tibet.

Threat of boycott

Tibet has always had a romantic association around the world, fostered by the figure of the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

If the protests in Tibet are repressed too harshly, then calls for a boycott of the games could grow, even though the Dalai Lama himself is not calling for such a move.

Governments around the world would be forced to make comments more critical of China over Tibet than they normally do.

Many governments feel that China has not balanced its policy in Tibet properly. It has undoubtedly poured a lot of money in to improve economic conditions, the railway link to Lhasa being the latest example.

But it has also poured in Chinese immigrants and has, in the view of foreign governments and human rights observers, neglected the cultural aspirations of the Tibetans.

This feeling was evident in a statement on 15 March by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who said in part: "We also urge China to address policies in Tibetan areas that have created tensions due to their impact on Tibetan religion, culture, and livelihoods."

Raising human rights

The British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said recently that diplomats no longer had to fear that raising human rights with China meant that economic relations would be damaged.

However, visits by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy to China showed little evidence that human rights had featured much during their talks.

Mr Miliband's confidence will no doubt strengthen the chances of the Dalai Lama meeting Mr Brown during an expected visit to Britain in May. He was refused a meeting with the previous prime minister, Tony Blair, in 2004.

Foreign governments accept Chinese rule in Tibet and do not recognise the Tibetan government-in-exile in India.

Those governments are not calling for Tibetan independence. Nor is the Dalai Lama, though China accuses him of doing so. He says he would like "meaningful autonomy" within the Chinese state.

However, a balanced solution along those lines seems far off.

The Everest ban

An example of China's habits of control can even be seen on the peaks of Mount Everest.

It was the Everest climbers' website Everest News that earlier this month revealed that China had closed Mount Everest on the Tibetan side until 10 May. It has since persuaded the government of Nepal, to which it gives substantial economic aid, to do the same on its side.

The stated reason is "concern of heavy climbing activities, crowded climbing routes and increasing environmental pressures".

But the real reason is probably to allow a Chinese team to reach the summit with the Olympic torch - without risking other climbers flying the Tibetan flag at the same time.

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