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.
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."
If the president does attend the ceremony, the group added, he should also visit Tibet to affirm America's commitment to religious freedom.
"He believes that sport is about sport and not politics. And he does have various channels through which he keeps a long running dialogue with [Chinese President] Hu [Jintao] and China on human rights," says Dr. Cha in an e-mail.
One of the those channels, he adds, is the human rights dialogue that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is reopening with the Chinese foreign minister.
The State Department also issues an annual report on the status of religious freedom and persecution in other countries. Every year since 1999, the US has designated China as "a country of particular concern" for its restrictions on religion and abuses against adherents of various faiths. In Tibet, the 2007 report said, "the level of repression remained high."
Under federal law, the US is supposed to sanction nations that are designated as "countries of particular concern." The only sanction against China, however, is one that was already in existence before the law passed: a US refusal to export crime detection equipment.
The commission has argued for some time that the government isn't employing sanctions effectively. "There are tools in the law that aren't being used," says Scott Flipse, the commission's East Asia analyst. "We'd like to see some more creative thinking in how one uses the tools of the act to target specific problems."
Protestors of all hues
Tibetans are expected to be one of the biggest protest contingents at Wednesday's San Francisco relay. Only peaceful protests are planned, says Tsering Gyurmey of the Tibetan Association of Northern California. Asked if he's worried about a backlash to the virulent protests in Paris, he says no. "It's more worrisome what's going on in Tibet than about the torch."
Other protesters are expected too, including Burmese, Vietnamese, and North Koreans, activists for Darfur and the Falun Gong, and Chinese democracy and Internet freedom advocates.
For many of these groups, it's been a long time since there's been a strong venue to raise their grievances. Many of these issues used to get at least an annual airing in the 1990s when Congress revisited China's most favored trade status.
When the yearly review of free trade agreements ended in 2000, so ended valuable debates that resulted in positive changes in China, says T. Kumar, Amnesty International's advocacy director for Asia in Washington.
"After that it became very difficult to raise human rights in a substantive manner," says Mr. Kumar. "Coupled with 9/11, the focus of the US and others was more on the war on terror than on human rights."
China bashing no more
Times have changed since those annual Congressional debates, says Susan Shirk, who served as the former deputy assistant secretary of State for US-China relations in the late '90s. The annual "bashing" of China, she argues, did nothing at the time and would now be very imprudent.
"China is such a major influence in the world today that bashing China isn't free anymore," says Ms. Shirk. "I think we need to be smart when we criticize China and think about what helps on the ground, rather than what feels good to vent about."