Europe's ardor for Olympic boycott cools

Despite earlier tensions over Tibet, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will attend the opening ceremonies in August.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    More Heated Times: Pro-Tibet protesters demonstrated in Paris in April as the Olympic torch passed through.
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This August as world attention turns to the Olympics in Beijing, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader and target of Chinese ire, travels to France.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy now says he will travel to China for the Games – ending speculation that the high-profile European leader might stay home to protest China's handling of Tibet after monks rioted in Lhasa in March.

This spring, Europe briefly looked set to champion the Tibetan cause. Activists in London and Paris nearly doused the Olympic torch as it came through, setting off events that helped dim the Games' luster. Mr. Sarkozy tied his Olympic attendance to talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.

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But if European officials had any ardor to make Tibet an Olympic issue, it has largely cooled.

Faced with an intense and studied set of pressures by Beijing, with worry over the consequence of China losing face in its première world event, in which it has invested billions, and with a tragic earthquake in Sichuan overshadowing Tibet, talk of protest has been replaced by a sober and pragmatic silence in Europe.

Sarkozy said at the G-8 meeting in Japan that he will not address the issue of Tibet until October, when talks between China and the Dalai Lama are to resume.

President Bush and Japanese head of state Yasuo Fukuda have announced they will attend opening ceremonies on Aug. 8, and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy looks ready to as well. Angela Merkel of Germany and Gordon Brown of Britain have long said they will not attend, though not as a boycott.

This week, as rumors flew around Paris that Sarkozy would privately meet the Dalai Lama, China's ambassador issued a warning. Such a meeting would have "serious consequences," said Ambassador Kong Quan. "It will interfere with our internal affairs. I don't want to contemplate this possibility."

"Sympathy for Tibet is very strong in Europe, where there's a great awareness of the Tibetan issues," says Nancy Li, a Paris-based human rights activist on China. "But China isn't ready for symbolic protests the West might feel are natural, and I think the international community is forced to give the Chinese face."

To be sure, France has experienced warnings and informal economic penalties such as a de facto ban on Chinese tourism to France and earlier protests against buying goods from French stores in China. But of special concern to the West, experts say, is that the Olympic spirit in China has soured so badly over Tibet that what was to be a grand showcase for a confident China is instead fomenting xenophobic angers and grudges among ordinary Chinese.

Tibet was closed off in March after protests by monks culminated in riots and store burnings in Lhasa. Several Chinese were killed. The Dalai Lama condemned the violence and calls for a peaceful Olympics – while also arguing for greater autonomy and freedom of worship. China labeled him a "wolf" asking for independence.

Since then, Chinese media and Internet opinion have portrayed Western revulsion at a Chinese attitudes on Tibet as tied to Western fears of China's rise – stoked by biased Western media accounts of Tibet (where most foreign correspondents are not allowed to travel). Western human rights groups have called for an end to a crackdown on monks, Chinese patriotic education, and requirements for monks to denounce the Dalai Lama.

"Chinese authorities have handled this skillfully," says Vincent Brossel of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, the only group that still advocates a boycott. "They have turned criticism of their Tibet policy into something that is unjust and prejudiced against China."

Faced this spring with a gush of negative world headlines over Tibet, China agreed to meet with envoys of the Dalai Lama. Yet energy for the talks vanished as world sympathy focused on earthquake victims in Sichuan Province. In the interim, Beijing has taken a hard line on talks – and stepped up efforts to delegitimize and erase the issue. "I think you will see Hu Jintao shake hands with the pope long before he ever shakes hands with the Dalai Lama," says one longtime European scholar in Beijing.

So inconclusive were talks last week that chief envoy Lodi Gyari said in Dharamsala July 6 that "there is a growing perception among the Tibetans and my friends that the whole tactic of the Chinese government is to engage us to stall for time."

In those talks, the Tibetan envoys argued that Beijing should recognize that the riots reflected frustrations in Tibet over an assimilation by the Chinese of their land, culture, and freedom. Beijing, in the talks, demanded that the Dalai Lama agree that Tibet has always been a historical part of China. The demands on the Dalai Lama would "reduce the Dalai Lama to repeating the party line taken in the Xinhua [state-run Chinese] news service," says one former China scholar.

China says it does not get credit for modernizing Tibet, bringing roads, schools, and power to a backward and feudal state.

In Germany, where feelings for Tibet are especially strong, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was criticized by activists for a piece in Die Zeit that offered the Chinese and the Tibetan point of view. "The [Tibetan] monks are fighting not for human rights but for the interests of their monasteries – and Tibetan nationalism."

Ahead of the G-8 summit, Sarkozy said he was reserving his decision on the Games based on progress at the talks. Those talks took place in no small part, sources say, because the Japanese needed them to properly host Chinese President Hu Jintao at the summit – and avoid criticism from Japan's sizable Buddhist population.

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