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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China Waves the Flag

May 5, 2008

Asia Sentinel, China
04 May 2008

As the Olympic torch makes its way across Asia it raises fears of
Chinese chauvinism

china-flagTo the surprise and irritation of the Beijing government,
China is finding that the Olympic torch relay has been a propaganda
failure not just in the west but in much of Asia as well.

The large and unruly demonstrations with which pro-Tibet and assorted
other demonstrators greeted the torch in London, Paris and elsewhere
have not happened here. But many in Asia have been dismayed at what is
regarded more as a manifestation of Chinese triumphalism than a symbol
of the international brotherhood of sport. Sympathy that China might
have gained in Asia from the overtly anti-China sentiments and
hypocritical moralizing in the West were more than nullified by what
happened on the ground.

The relay has not only been given far more publicity than prior to any
previous Olympics but China has made the attendance of certain foreign
political leaders a litmus test of “friendship.” The opening ceremonies
of the two previous Olympics, in Athens and Sydney, were showy but
lacked any overt political content and were certainly not “must attend”
occasions for presidents and prime ministers.

In India, one the largest-ever security operations was needed to protect
the torch, and even then the route had to be shortened. India never wins
many medals at the Olympics and so is expected to be further irritated
with China’s crowing about its success when the games finally begin in
August. Meanwhile India is being further infuriated by Beijing’s
decision to take the torch to the top of Mount Everest, which Delhi
regards as a symbol of its control of Tibet.

The distinguished foreign affairs columnist Brahma Chellaney wrote in
the The Times of India that this was a publicity stunt which “will only
infuse more politics into the games already tainted by the manner
China’s pressure helped turn the just-concluded international torch
relay into a stage-managed security exercise everywhere to pander to its
self-esteem at the cost of the Olympic spirit of openness.”

In South Korea, where there is normally scant innate hostility to China,
the thuggish behavior of thousands of Chinese students appalled a
population for whom the right to dissent and protest are now deeply
ingrained. Television footage showed the Chinese “patriotic” students
attacking Koreans demonstrating against the oppression in Tibet and
China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees. This comes at a
time when, despite close economic ties, Koreans are smarting at
Beijing’s efforts to incorporate Korean history into their own. There
were also clashes in Japan between Chinese students and local protesters
and elsewhere in Asia there was little celebration. Thailand delivered
massive police protection and threats of deportation should Tibetan
exiles cause trouble. Indonesia kept the whole torch ceremony private.

In fitting contrast to events in Seoul and elsewhere in Asia, the torch
had a trouble-free passage in North Korea, almost the only place where
it did. Vietnam rounded up known anti-China voices before the torch’s
arrival and the government’s tight political grip ensured that there was
no trouble. However, China’s games aggrandizement did remind many
Vietnamese not only of historical enmity but of China’s current claims
to the Spratly islands and to seabed resources off the coast of Vietnam.
Some saw the local torch-bearers as unpatriotic by furthering Chinese
interests.

China’s banging of the nationalist drum was also conspicuous in Hong
Kong, providing a contrast between the territory’s autonomous identity
with Beijing’s use of the games to stimulate patriotic One-Country
fervor at the expense of the Two-Systems status which has enabled the
territory to enjoy separate representation at the Olympics.

Not content with welcoming the torch as a symbol of international sport,
the government and a clutch of “patriotic” organizations insisted on
identifying the torch relay with red, the color of the national flag
created by the Communist party when it came to power. Citizens were
urged to wear red on the day of the relay and millions of red patriotic
stickers were distributed. Government workers were “encouraged” to wear
red and to attend.

In the event, the majority of Hong Kong people seemed to be cool to the
whole affair. While wishing the Olympics well, few seemed inclined to
join the celebrations. Random samples of people in the streets suggested
that fewer than than 10 percent followed the “wear red” advice and many
of those had been given T-shirts or stickers by employers seeking to be
seen to be “patriotic”.

The cheering crowds which greeted the torch at various locations were
composed largely of children let out of school for the occasion and
provided with flags to wave. In addition there was an influx of
putonghua-speaking mainlanders who waved huge patriotic banners along
the torch route. Pro-Beijing political figures and members of the
business elite were heavily represented among the torch bearers, with
sportsmen taking a minority role and opposition politicians being
excluded altogether.

The future of Hong Kong’s representation at the games may also have been
brought into question by the criteria for membership of the Hong Kong
team. Only Chinese nationals are eligible, rather than by birth or
residence, the criteria for representation at many other sports and used
by other dependent-territory Olympic teams. If Hong Kong’s tens of
thousands of locally-born Indians, Filipinos and others are to be
excluded while Chinese nationals who have lived there only a short time
are chosen, it may be well to ask why Hong Kong is given separate status
from China. Some see the current criteria as overt racism disguised as
legitimate nationalism.

Overall, the torch relay seems to have awakened Asian sensibilities to
China’s rise in a way that no statistics or speeches could have done.
Pride at Asian success and the opportunities for trade an investment
that China offers may have peaked, and the Olympic torch appears to have
become more a symbol of China’s power than of international brotherhood.
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