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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Carrying a Torch for Tibet

March 23, 2008

By Dave Zirin,
The Nation
March 22, 2008

The brutal crackdown by Chinese authorities against Tibetan independence
protesters ahead of the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing August
8 carries with it a terrible echo from the past. Scores of protesters
are reported dead in the capital city of Lhasa and more repression has
been promised. Tibet's China-appointed Governor Champa Phuntsok said,
"No country would allow those offenders or criminals to escape the arm
of justice and China is no exception." A Tibetan exile group said Monday
that Chinese troops were shooting down protesters "like dogs."

Even after decades of occupation, the ruthlessness of the crackdown has
shocked much of the world. It happens the week after the U.S. State
Department removed China from its list of the world's worst human rights

Yet the concern expressed by world leaders has seemed less for the
people of Tibet than the fate of the Summer Games, with Olympic cash
deemed more precious than Tibetan blood. The Olympics were supposed to
be China's multibillion-dollar, super sweet sixteen. Britain's Minister
for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, Mark Malloch-Brown told the
BBC, "This is China's coming-out party, and they should take great care
to do nothing that will wreck that."

Other countries hankering after a piece of China's thriving economy have
rushed to put daylight between the crackdown in Tibet from the Olympics.
The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement saying that "attempts at
politicizing the holding of the 2008 Olympic Games in China are

While the European Union, Russia, the United States and Australia have
ruled out the idea of boycotting the games, French Foreign Minister
Bernard Kouchner said Tuesday that the EU should at least consider
boycotting the opening ceremony if violence continues.

Whatever happens next, China's crackdown in Tibet is not happening in
spite of the Beijing Olympics, but because of them. It is a bold play by
China to set a tone for the remainder of the year. Since its occupation
of the country in 1951, China has suppressed its Buddhist faith,
despoiled the environment and made Tibetans a persecuted minority in
their own country via the mass migration of millions of Han Chinese. As
monks and young Tibetans took their grievances to the streets over the
weekend, the government made clear it would brook no protest and
tolerate no dissent.

But it's helpful to remember that in many countries, including our own,
pre-Olympic repression is as much of a tradition as lighting the torch.

In 1984, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates oversaw the jailing of
thousands of young black men in the infamous Olympic Gang Sweeps. The
1996 Atlanta games were supposed to demonstrate the gains of the New
South, but the New South ended up looking much like the old one, as
public housing was razed to make way for the construction of Olympic
venues, homeless people were chased off the streets and perceived
trouble-makers were arrested.

As Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project recently
recalled in Vancouver, BC, another city poised to crack down on crime,
drugs and homelessness in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 2010,
Atlanta officials "had six ordinances that made all kinds of things
illegal, including lying down. Lots of people were shipped out, and lots
of people were put in jail. [The Olympic Planning Committee] actually
built the city jail. Activists there called it the first Olympic project
completed on time."

But the worst example of Olympic repression -- and the most similar to
the current moment -- came in 1968 in Mexico City, where hundreds of
Mexican students and workers occupying the National University were
slaughtered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2, 1968, ten
days before the start of the games. Recently declassified documents
paint a picture of a massacre as cold and methodical as President Luis
Echeverría's instructions.

Echeverría's aim was the same as China's: a pre-emptive strike to make
sure that using the Olympic games as a platform for protest would not be
on the itinerary. The irony, of course, is that while Echeverría
succeeded in crushing the protest movement outside the games, on the
inside U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their
black-gloved fists in an expression of Black Power, cementing the 1968
games as a place defined by discontent. It's a lesson the 2008 athletes
might remember. Officials may try to smother dissent on the streets of
Lhasa and elsewhere in China, but in the games themselves -- from the
path of the Olympic torch up Mount Everest to the opulent venues
constructed in Beijing -- the risk for protest, and the opportunity, is

Dave Zirin is the author of What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance
in the United States. Read more of his work at
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