Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Thursday, 10 April 2008 11:35 UK

Washington diary: China's crisis

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

A torchbearer in San Francisco, 9 April 2008
For China, the Olympics are about more than sporting prowess and pride

I was in Beijing on the hot summer's night in 2001 when it was announced that the Olympic Games would be awarded to the world's most populous nation.

We had squeezed into an outdoor atrium a mile or so from the Forbidden City on the broad Chang An Avenue that was once - a long time ago - filled with 10 lanes of bicycles and is now clogged with dense urban traffic.

Giant screens broadcast the voices of IOC officials radiating with the charisma of Swiss bank managers. Their downbeat delivery jarred with the bubbling hysteria of the crowd around us, screaming "Beijing Erlingbai, Beijing Erlingbai!", Beijing 2008, Beijing 2008 in high-pitched anticipation.

As the announcement was read out, there was a hushed silence, in which you could only hear the cicadas and the hum of distant traffic.

Suddenly the crowd erupted into euphoria. A young bespectacled student next to me burst into tears. His girlfriend sank to the ground. A group of sweating students came up to me and shouted: "You see, China is the best... we are the biggest and now we are the best!"

Coming-out party

Whenever a city gets the Olympics, there are scenes of jubilation. London went wild for a night when it got the Games in 2005. In Sydney, I witnessed the sporting pride of a nation in love with the outdoors. Australia was keen to use the spotlight to introduce the world to the land "down under".

The Chinese have come to the conclusion that the West values economic interest far more highly than democracy - and who can blame them?

But the Beijing Olympics were never just about the pride of a city or the sporting prowess of Chinese athletes, or indeed the tourist board's desire to introduce the globe to Dim Sum, Sichuan folk dresses and the Terracotta Army.

For China, the Games are a coming-out party for an emerging super-power, a chance to prove to the world that it deserves to be respected, that it has finally shaken off the yoke of Communist isolation or colonial occupation.

The Games will put a human face to all those economic statistics that the world has marvelled at for so many years. In Beijing, the Olympics will not just be a sporting event. They will be a national celebration.

Compare it to the perfect wedding of an arranged marriage. It is less about the love between bride and groom and more about the canapes, the placement and the 600 carefully chosen family guests. Last minute objections are a definite no-no.

The claim that this is just another international sporting event simply does not wash. The Chinese themselves do not see it that way. The Olympics have always been prone to political meddling. They are after all a competition between nation states and not individual sportsmen and women.

There is nothing unusual about the Chinese using the Olympics to gain the respect of the international community.

But if granting that respect involves a tacit acceptance of bloodshed or excessive force, plastered on TV screens, then an appearance at the party could become an embarrassment. People will make this judgement on their own terms.

Slap in the face

Stephen Spielberg decided in February that he could not continue as artistic director of the Games, saying China was not doing enough to pressure Sudan to end the killings and violence in Darfur.

The Chinese were furious.

A kite painted with the mascot of the Beijing Olympics flies in China
The Chinese will see any boycott of the Olympics as a slap in the face

Now the situation in Tibet is making others reconsider. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has hinted that the opening ceremony may have to be boycotted.

Barack Obama has urged President Bush to consider staying away unless China's human rights record improves.

Hillary Clinton has made a similar call, although it is worth pointing out that as First Lady she did go to China in 1996 for the international women's conference despite calls for her not to attend because of Beijing's human rights abuses.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has declared that he will only attend the closing ceremony - the diplomatic equivalent of smoking without inhaling.

But the Chinese have a zero-tolerance policy for even the faintest whiff of dissent and any form of boycott will be perceived as a slap in the face for a nation which cares deeply about saving face.

For their part, the pro-Tibetan demonstrators know this is their opportunity to hurt China where they have failed even to scratch its hide in recent decades. They will protest all the way to the closing ceremony.

As the demonstrations get more heated, the torch more imperilled and the questions more acute, other actors will be forced to reassess.

Most Western governments and businesses like a China that is stable and hides its discontent and dirty business from public view.

So after two decades the Chinese have come to the conclusion that the West values economic interest far more highly than democracy. And who can blame them?


The Chinese have had their way over Tibet. They have openly intimidated those countries who want to have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. And from their point of view, the Tibetans are an ungrateful bunch of peasants who have been dragged from the Dark Age of a Buddhist theocracy to the modern era of paved roads, city plumbing and light bulbs.

Tibetan monks (file image)
China's attempts brought modernity to Tibet but it has not always been welcome

I travelled through China as a student in 1984 when the country was largely closed to outsiders. I stayed in Taerse, a stunning Tibetan monastery on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.

This home to hundreds of Tibetan monks had been saved by Zhou Enlai during the Cultural Revolution, as the Chinese mobs prepared to level it to the ground. He felt it was simply too beautiful to be left to the mercies of those wielding the axe in one hand and the Little Red Book in the other.

One day, bus loads of Chinese tourists in Mao uniforms arrived. They lined the dirt road to the monastery and laughed openly at the monks and pilgrims who were approaching on their knees as custom dictates. Some shouted abuse. Some even spat. I asked them why they had done that. "Look," a woman with thick, black-rimmed spectacles wearing a blue Mao suit told me. "They are like cave people."

You do not pick a fight with your banker, especially when your economy is in trouble

China may have brought electrical power to Tibet but it has also humiliated its recipients for decades, forced the Dalai Lama to stay in exile and imprisoned his chosen successor, the Panchen Lama, when he was just a six-year-old boy, appointing another Tibetan boy in his place.

Now that bubble of humiliation, oppression and quiet suffering has burst. The Tibetans know that 2008 is perhaps their only chance to force the world outside Hollywood and what President George W Bush told me in February was "the Dalai Lama crowd" to take note.

From governments to Western companies sponsoring the Olympics, all will have to make choices as the protests continue.

To boycott or not to boycott. To incur the wrath of China or not.

These will become ever more pressing questions, sharpened in the US by the demands of the presidential election campaign and a hinterland of Sinophobia ranging from toxic toys to outsourced jobs.

President Bush told me in February that he does not support any boycott. He knows better than anyone how much Chinese investment now underwrites the US economy, how many billions of dollars in US treasury bonds are owned by China.

And let's face it: you do not pick a fight with your banker, especially when your economy is in trouble.

Fear of chaos

The Chinese, too, will have to make choices. Do they live up to their vow to crack down on any dissent? Do they care more about the placement, the canapes and the band at the wedding than about the couple at the altar?

What motivates them in their hardline rhetoric towards keeping the torch alight and the Olympics free of dissent is, as ever, fear of chaos. If they are seen to give in over Tibet, they believe it will soon be open season on China's brittle unity. Such is the paranoia of dictatorships. The wedding would be off and the marquee burned to the ground.

I end back on that clammy night in Beijing.

Amid the euphoria and the crowds, we began to notice armoured vehicles on Chang An. It was the first time since the violent suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that the military had been deployed on the streets of the capital.

The Chinese do not like large gatherings of crowds, even patriotic ones, if they display too much emotion. Events could go off-script. That was the mistake of 1989.

The men and women living in the modern Forbidden City, Zhongnanhai, the heavily guarded home of the party elite, simply do not trust their own people.

This may not be a sound basis on which to host a sporting event that is by its very nature unpredictable, but it is the reality of an emerging super-power in which we are all heavily invested.

And the hapless little torch making its way around the globe this week is shedding a glaring light on some very inconvenient truths about our relationship with China.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News 24 and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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