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Needling China Before Next Year's Olympics

Are the US and the European Union (EU) planning to dangle over the head of China the Damocle’s Sword of a possible boycott of next year’s Beijing Olympics in order to make China to be more amenable to Western pressure on issues such as greater democracy and respect for human rights in China, genuine religious freedom, greater co-operation with the international community in exercising pressure on the unpopular military junta in Myanmar to give up its policy of repression and greater respect for the human rights of the Tibetans and talks with the Dalai Lama on the future of Tibet?

2. This question has been worrying the Chinese ever since some human rights activists in the US and West Europe started calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics in protest against the Chinese policy on Darfur, thereby making Beijing take some corrective measures in its policy towards Sudan. The Chinese eagerness to make a success of the Olympics and to project a positive image of itself in the months before the Olympics is viewed by Western human rights and pro-democracy activists as providing an opportunity to Western Governments to exercise pressure on China on other issues too.

3. The contradictory statements made by President George Bush on this issue during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit at Sydney in the first week of September, 2007, must have added to the Chinese concerns. The initial remarks of Mr.Bush and his spokesmen were reassuring to the Chinese. After a bilateral meeting with President Hu Jintao on September 6,2007, Mr.Bush said: “He extended an invitation to me and Laura and our family to come to the Olympics. And of course, I was anxious to accept.” One of his spokesmen subsequently said: ” The President had stressed to Hu that for him, he was going to the Olympics for the sports and not for any political statements.”

4. However, the American language changed the next day. Mr.Bush said: ” “We will encourage China to open up its political system and give greater voice to its people. Next year, China will host the Olympic Games, and it will be a moment of pride for the Chinese people. It will also be a moment when the eyes of the entire world will fall on Beijing.We urge China’s leaders to use this moment to show confidence by demonstrating a commitment to greater openness and tolerance.”

5. Mr.Bush urged the creation of an “Asia Pacific Democracy Partnership” to help “forces of moderation” in the region and added: “We must work for the day when the people of North Korea enjoy the same freedoms as the citizens of their democratic neighbours.We must press the regime in Burma to stop arresting, harassing, and assaulting pro-democracy activists for organizing or participating in peaceful demonstrations.The Burmese regime must release these activists immediately, stop its intimidation of those Burmese citizens who are promoting democracy and human rights, and release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.”

6. The reversal of the more moderate position of Mr.Bush came at a time when reports had started flowing in from Myanmar about the brutal suppression of the non-violent agitation of the pro-democracy activists by the military regime. Myanmar and Tibetan political exiles abroad started pointing out the inappropriateness of holding the Olympics in China at a time when China allegedly continued to support the brutal regime in Myanmar and to deny basic human rights to the Tibetans. Reports also started coming in during this period of Chinese allegedly harassing or even arresting people in Sichuan and Tibet, who talked of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. The Chinese are determined that just as they did in the case of the Panchen Lama, the Communist Party would also choose the successor of the present Dalai Lama after his death. There were also reports of some Indian traders from Sikkim going across to Tibet for trading purposes being harassed because they had a photograph of the Dalai Lama.

7. As the full scale of the repression in Myanmar by the Junta came to be known to the outside world, demands were voiced by Western human rights activists and pro-democracy organisations for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics in protest over China’s continued support to the Junta. Even some Western political leaders joined in this call for boycott.On September 27,2007, the Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mr. Edward McMillan-Scott, said that he would write to the British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, and other EU leaders to discuss whether Western athletes should oppose the Beijing games. He told the Reuters news agency: “The consensus around the European Parliament is that China is the key. China is the puppet master of Burma.The Olympics is the only real lever we have to make China act. The civilized world must seriously consider shunning China by using the Beijing Olympics to send the clear message that such abuses of human rights are not acceptable.” Simultaneously,Mr.Justin Kilcullen, Director of Trocaire, an Irish charity organisation, said in a statement: ‘China is the only country that can bring the oppressive regime in Burma to heel.One thing they are very sensitive about is their Olympic games.I believe it’s time now to say unless they can live up to the responsibilities of that role and bring their client state of Burma to heel, we should boycott those Olympics”

8. In this context, China has reasons to be worried by the very high-profile welcome being accorded to the Dalai Lama, who is presently on a visit to the US. His supporters in the US have been taking advantage of his visit to remind the American people of the alleged Chinese denial of human rights to the Tibetans. Without openly linking the issue to next year’s Olympics, the Bush Administration and the Congress have also been co-operating with the supporters of the Dalai Lama by giving him an official welcome the like of which he had not received during his previous visits to the US.

9. He was bestowed with the Congressional gold medal, United States’ highest civilian honour, at a ceremony on October 17,2007, in recognition of his role as ‘one of the world’s foremost moral and religious figures, who is using his leadership role to advocate peacefully for the cultural autonomy of the Tibetan people within China.’ Mr. Bush became the first sitting US President to meet the Dalai Lama in public. After formally receiving the Dalai Lama in the White House, Mr.Bush said: “I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation’s interest. I have also told them that I think it is in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama.”After the Congressional function, which Mr.Bush attended in an extraordinary gesture to the Dalai Lama, he said: “It (Congress) has conferred this honour on a figure whose work continues, and whose outcome remains uncertain. In doing so, America raises its voice in the call for religious liberty and basic human rights.”Democratic Speaker of the House, Ms. Nancy Pelosi, said, “With this gold medal, we affirm the special relationship between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the United States.” The Bush Administration and the Congress went ahead with their programme despite strong Chinese protests over it.

10. The US honour to the Dalai Lama coincided with the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party currently being held in Beijing, which is expected, inter alia, to review the arrangements for next year’s Olympics. As of now, there appears to be little likelihood of a boycott of the Olympics by the participating countries despite the pro-boycott rhetoric emanating from some sections of the civil society and the political class in the US and the EU countries. They are using the talk of a possible boycott more to scare the Chinese into responding more positively on issues such as democracy and human rights—particularly in Myanmar and Tibet. What the Chinese should be worried about is that if this rhetoric continues unabated, it could have a negative impact on the flow of visitors to China to watch the Olympics.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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