Olympic torch rallying China's critics
For some years, China's boom and the war on terror have overridden human rights concerns.
China billed the Olympic torch relay as its strut onto the world stage. Instead, the torch's handlers left Europe in a mad dash, handing off to San Francisco Tuesday a global lightning rod for protests.Skip to next paragraph
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Critics of the Chinese government have been waiting for years for just such a headline moment. It's grown harder with China's booming economy and the war on terror, they say, to get Western governments to pressure Beijing on human rights.
Now, the pent-up frustrations are spilling with increasing intensity along the torch route, forcing a meeting of the International Olympic Committee later this week to decide whether to discontinue the relay. Meanwhile, calls are growing on Western leaders to skip the opening ceremonies – including, on Monday, from presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For human rights activists, the debate over the Games holds the possibility of a return to more critical, balanced engagement with Beijing. China experts warn, however, that Western officials should not underestimate how sensitive China will be to a slight on the torch.
"The translation of the event there [in China] is that certain hostile forces abroad are bound and determined to damage the face of the Chinese people," says David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. "No Chinese leader is going to want to look weak in the face of humiliation. You can just go to the bank on that."
Monday's image of a protester accosting a torch-bearer in a wheelchair in Paris, he and others warn, could become the inverse of the iconic image of a Tiananmen protester staring down the tank. It could result in stirring popular nationalism and drawing Chinese people closer to their government, he says.
While military or major economic responses would be beyond the pale, Beijing might decide to be less cooperative on the margins of its bilateral relationships with the West.
What should Western leaders do?
The margins are also where Western leaders are feeling pressure to take action, says Jacques deLisle, an East Asian studies expert at the University of Pennsylvania.
"We have seen a deemphasis on human rights [in US-China relations] in recent years, much of it for good reason," he says. "The problem is, getting the balance right again has become very difficult because China has become less willing to listen to this kind of criticism as it's beginning to feel its oats as a major power."
Or, the Bush administration could refrain from urging judges to brush off lawsuits against Chinese human rights violators brought in US courts under the Alien Tort Statute. One such case in 2004 found the current head of China's Olympics committee liable for torture and genocide against the Falun Gong movement.
The bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom lent its voice Monday to calls on President Bush to skip the Olympics opening ceremony. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she will miss the ceremony.
The president should condition his participation, the commission said, on "substantial improvement in respecting Tibetans‚ religious freedom, including [China's] opening direct ... talks with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhists' spiritual leader."