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Europe's ardor for Olympic boycott cools

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

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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.

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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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