Monday, March 31, 2008

Securing the torch

The world's attention has been on the tiny mountain kingdom of Tibet over the past two weeks after protests in 6 different Chinese cities erupted over the course of several days beginning on March 14. However, China, in the midst of working to downplay and even blame the protests and violence on Tibetan "revolutionaries"", is pushing through to start the Olympic Games of 2008 in Beijing by launching the traditional torch ceremony this morning. Granted security was tight, this didn't stop numerous other protests from re-igniting throughout the region.

China continues to dig itself deeper into a hole lacking any integrity by holding fast to the blame game -- that the Dalai Lama and his supporters instigated the riots and violence that followed the March 14th protests. China should know now that the world won't believe their bureaucratic spin on a situation that has clearly gotten out of hand. Also, does Hu Jintao and the Chinese Communist Party leadership really want to get into a "he said, we said" battle with perhaps the most revered living religious leader on the planet? Its not a battle they can win but I don't see them backing down, even against strong international pressure. Yet eyes widened at yesterday's news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not be attending the opening ceremonies of the games because of the Chinese crackdown in Tibet has started a flurry of rumors that other EU leaders (Sarkozy) would follow suit. Merkel became the third world leader (joining Poland's PM Donald Tusk and the Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus) to abandon the highly regarded opening ceremonies.

The U.S.'s role in this has been minimal. On the ground activists from Students for Free Tibet (who have been doing a splendid job of communicating information, organizing people on multiple continents and adopting a successful argument for this opportunity and moment) continue to drive energy for the boycott of the Beijing Games. But this is almost an impossible outcome, barring some foreign policy disaster on the part of Jintao's government.

First - the Olympic Games were structured around the idea of putting aside politics, war, and differences to come together to compete. As long as the American Olympic Committee decides not to let politics (read "human rights abuses") interfere with the games, America will be in Beijing for the 2008 Winter Games.

Second - the current American leadership lacks the understanding of what a boycott on behalf of Tibet could accomplish. The last Olympic Games that the U.S. sat out of was in Moscow 1980. Jimmy Carter had specific reasons for the boycott, least of which was the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter understood the impact of such a boycott on the Soviet image and worked overtime to get more than 60 nations to join the U.S. in abstaining from the games. That sent a message to the Soviet leadership. But today's American top-dogs aren't very good away from the doghouse and would never be able to see the benefit in moving China into discussions with Tibet.

Third - corporate America has too much invested in the Olympic Games. This is one of the few moments every decade when these companies have the entire world's eyes and ears -- there isn't anyway they're going to forego that opportunity. And if the U.S. pulls all of its athletes out many of those corporate contracts would fall apart. Combine NBC Sports, AT&T, General Electric, Coca-Cola and others.

Lastly - China currently holds over $1.5 trillion in U.S. debt. Even if Bush could build an argument for why China should begin open talks with Tibet, he would have very little political power with that much debt in one nation's hands. All they would have to threaten to do is flood the market, stop buying our debt and dump our dollars sending our economy into an absolute tailspin. We have very little leverage with the Chinese at this point.

If a protest of these companies were to occur, a U.S. pullout might be more conceivable. But right now, China is just hoping that Olympic Torch gets back to Beijing as quickly as possible, without any major incidents. I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing it be snuffed out in a country where human rights is still an idea, not a practice.


Big Grove Walker said...

Right on Japhet!
China and Chinese products have become integrated into American life in a way that the idea of a boycott of the Olympics, or anything Chinese for that matter, seems unlikely. We can start by buying local, and searching for items that do not originate in China.
Regards from Iowa!

Matthew said...

Hey, I have a few problems with this post. They may seem minor, but I think they're important.
1. Tibet, even as countries go, isn't tiny.
2. It's not a kingdom.
So beginning a post by referring to it as a tiny mountain kingdom makes it seem, even if it's not true, that you don't know what you're talking about, and that's one of the main stereotypes Chinese people have about foreigners being indignant about Tibet: that they don't know what they're talking about, and just got spoon fed flawed information by news sources or other parties hostile to China. So, because it's an important issue to write about and know about, I just think it's best to try and avoid that pitfall, and all your arguments will carry more weight.

Japhet said...

Matthew - good points. I was referring to Tibet as a tiny mountain kingdom in comparison to the expanse that is China. I referred to them as "kingdom" because its what they were regarded as before they were absorbed by the Chinese military. Their head of state was the Dalai Llama and it was a monarchy. Now, as a statement of solidarity to the former kingdom of Tibet, supporters often refer to it as a "kingdom" as a way of recognizing their desire for independence.

The problem with playing this game with China is that everyone has different sources. Chinese media and Beijing have their own messages and the schools have their own history books with a completely different historical story of how Tibet became a part of China and what the Tibetan culture is. My only problem with this is that none of the media or press in China is truly free and therefore is highly susceptible to corruption and also lacks integrity. So as long as China continues to operate and educate through a government-run media system I refuse to entertain their arguments for why they "know" more about the situation than anyone else. I've been to Tibet, which is maybe more than most Chinese can say. Yet, I have not lived in China so I don't fully understand their perspective -- yet I'm skeptical of any sources for knowledge and education that are not free and independent.

Can you imagine if the U.S. suddenly decided that Bush's Press Secretary should also be the anchor of the only nightly news show? How could I take what she says seriously or even as truth knowing how much b.s. they spin? I feel the same way about China's media.