Protests or not, Olympic torch officials plan to stay the course

Further demonstrations are expected at upcoming stops, which include Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Dino Vournas/AP
Inflamed: The Olympic torch has met a deluge of protest in most of its global stops since leaving Beijing April 1. Pro- and anti-China demonstrators faced off on the streets of San Francisco Wednesday before the relay began.

Chinese Olympic organizers appear determined to plow on with their troubled international torch relay, hoping that cities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia will offer a warmer welcome.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge backed that stance Thursday, saying a shortening of the route – the most ambitious in Olympics history – to forestall more trouble "is definitely not on the agenda."

Further disruptive protests over Tibet and human rights are expected, however, before the torch reaches the safety of Chinese shores. Beijing has shown no sign of any political gestures to defuse the demonstrations; indeed it fanned tension by choosing its ambassador to Britain to carry the torch in London. The relay's intended message of harmony now appears beyond salvage.

The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (BOCOG) "cannot do anything" to defuse protests "because it's political," says Mao Shoulong, an analyst at Beijing's Renmin University. Worldwide calls on the Chinese government to make a political move, such as opening talks with the Dalai Lama, are going unheeded, he adds.

That leaves the relay's corporate sponsors furious but impotent. "Their worst nightmare is coming true in spades," says one PR professional familiar with the problems sponsors such as Coca Cola, Samsung, and Lenovo are facing. "They are wondering how things could have got so out of control in so many ways."

In San Francisco, the relay's latest stop, torch bearers avoided trouble Wednesday by running away from the crowds gathered to cheer or boo them, taking a shortened and unpublicized route along sometimes deserted streets.

Similar tactics will be adopted in other potential trouble spots such as New Delhi and Canberra, Australi, according to sources privy to the organizers' plans.

Losing the image battle

This is not what the Chinese authorities had in mind when they mapped out the longest international Olympic torch relay ever run, an ambitious 85,000-mile, 20-nation odyssey designed to build anticipation for the Games, which open on August 8.

In Beijing, officials have expressed dismay that the torch has run into such political turmoil.

"People should respect the torch because it represents the common aspirations of all peoples," BOCOG spokeswoman Wang Hui argued this week. "It represents the Olympic spirit."

Other observers, though, say that controversy was inevitable, especially when people like the top Chinese diplomat in Britain carried the torch in London.

"The Chinese are trying to conflate themselves with the Olympics through the single symbol of the torch," says Mark Harrison, who teaches Chinese studies at the University of Westminster in London.

"For protesters, it represents the Chinese state and nothing else," he adds. "The Chinese are investing so much meaning and symbolism in the relay that people are bound to fight over it."

For the time being, the protesters appear to have won the image battle. "Right now, the torch is being seen as a symbol of oppression," says the PR executive, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Changing that would be a challenge I would not want to take on."

Calls for 'moral engagement'

World leaders such as US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have urged Beijing to help clear the air before the Olympics by talking with Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader the Dalai Lama in the wake of the most serious unrest in Tibet in decades.

Though such a move might undercut many of the protesters who have dogged the torch route in Europe and the United States, "I do not see the Chinese government ready to talk to the Dalai Lama now," says Professor Mao. "It is not a good time. Things are too hot."

Neither have government officials shown signs of readiness to take other steps that might answer foreign critics' complaints, such as releasing political prisoners, or providing helicopters to the United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur, where Western activists have accused Beijing of complicity in genocide through its support for the Sudanese government.

Mr. Rogge called on the Chinese government to respect what he called its "moral engagement" to improve human rights before the Olympics, but stressed that Beijing had made "no contractual promise whatsoever" to do so.

"Releasing hundreds of prisoners would certainly improve China's image overseas," says one Western diplomat. "But since they are continuing to lock people up" on political charges, "it does not seem as if they are preparing to make that sort of gesture."

Where the torch heads next

After raucous tours in Europe and the US, the Olympic flame arrives in Latin America Friday and will visit Africa and Asia before returning to China in May.

April 11: Buenos Aires

April 13: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

April 14: Muscat, Oman

April 16: Islamabad, Pakistan

April 17: New Delhi

April 19: Bangkok, Thailand

April 21: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

April 22: Jakarta, Indonesia

April 24: Canberra, Australia

April 26: Nagano, Japan

April 27: Seoul, South Korea

April 28: Pyongyang, North Korea

April 29: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

May 2: Hong Kong

Source: Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee

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