Tibet, Human Rights and the Beijing Olympics


By Richard Baum

Published Jul 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Between a Rock and a Hard PlaceBetween a Rock and a Hard Place

When the 2008 Summer Olympics were awarded to Beijing in July 2001, expectations were high that China's desire to showcase the Beijing Games, amplified by the bright light of international scrutiny, would push the country toward political liberalization, media freedom and respect for human rights. Yet the government's overriding short-term concern with maintaining social order and political stability during the August Olympics has resulted in a visible tightening of state media controls and Internet censorship, and stepped-up harassment of human-rights activists.

In recent months Beijing police have detained dozens, if not hundreds, of protesters, petitioners and whistle-blowers, and the Asian giant's treatment of Tibet has become front-page news across the world. Expected to help open China up, the Olympics have paradoxically served to close China down further.

With the clock ticking down to the August 8 Opening Ceremony, attacks on China's human-rights record at home and abroad have begun to converge and overlap, giving rise to an energetic, if somewhat inchoate, Olympic boycott movement. Last year, a distinguished group of Chinese political activists publicly renounced Beijing's grandiose wish for Olympic glory, stating, "We know too well how these glories are built on the ruins of the lives of ordinary people." They were joined by the co-designer of Beijing's stunning new "Bird’s Nest" National Olympic Stadium, Ai Weiwei. In a video widely viewed on YouTube last fall, Ai famously gave film director Steven Spielberg the finger after Spielberg signed on as artistic consultant to the Beijing Games.

In the past few months, the list of prominent international Olympic naysayers has grown to include Britain's Prince Charles, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Parliament Vice President Edward McMillan-Scott, actress Mia Farrow, nine Nobel Prize winners, 119 U.S. lawmakers and even Steven Spielberg himself. Reneging on his Olympic consulting commitment in mid-February, Spielberg stated that he could no longer conduct business as usual while Darfur continued to deteriorate.

Spielberg's defection put Chinese leaders squarely on the defensive. Fearing a bandwagon effect, the Beijing Olympic Committee declared that China was actively engaging in "quiet diplomacy" to alleviate human suffering in southern Sudan. A few days later, a Foreign Ministry spokesman announced that Chinese policy in Burma (Myanmar) was one of promoting a "democratic process of reconciliation and peace." And at the end of February, the Chinese government announced that it would resume its suspended human-rights dialogue with the United States, which was broken off at Beijing’s initiative in 2004.

Just as things were beginning to calm down, in mid-March a series of anti-Chinese protests broke out in Tibet, some of which turned violent. After watching passively for a few days, the government cracked down severely on alleged rioters. In this situation of heightened tension, the start of the worldwide Olympic torch relay in April provided the occasion for a series of angry confrontations between pro-Tibetan and pro-Chinese demonstrators in Paris, London and San Francisco.

With the Olympic torch having ignited the flames of fervent, conflicting Chinese and Tibetan nationalisms, Beijing's leaders find themselves in a difficult bind. Their obsession with ensuring social order and political control at home is now clashing head-on with their equally strong craving for Olympic prestige and approval abroad. Powerful political cross-currents have thus been set in motion. As this contradiction continues to deepen, no one can be sure how it will play itself out. Meanwhile, the spotlight on Beijing shines ever more brightly.

The Beijing Games, in which China has invested so much hope for its image, are proving to be a powder keg for political protest. The outcome is far from clear, as Richard Baum '62, celebrated UCLA professor of political science and author of the upcoming China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom, makes clear in this edited version of an op-ed piece that appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in April.