Monday, June 11, 2007

Beijing risks Games burn

The Standard: James Rose - Monday, June 11, 2007 - Even as the infamous Beijing urban haze clouds the view of the spectacular Olympic stadium, one thing is clear: the Olympics are getting very close. Yet still so far away.

With the smog, and the construction work in the Olympic precinct, it still looks like a war zone. But the fact that things are getting closer is confirmed by the growing wave of attacks on China as the Games capture the world's attention and become a handy nail on which to hang all manner of anti-China sentiment.

The Olympic torch can burn unwary holders and, as a result, China's place as a world leader is about to be tested as never before.

Already, over the past few years, Chinese authorities have had to face a barrage of world discontent over the country's poor environmental and social record.

Leaders have therefore learned the modern geostrategic shuffle: walking the necessary line between having what you want and being what others want you to be.

Joining the World Trade Organization, looking to address environmental issues, especially climate change, and shutting down small coal mines are among the myriad of measures Beijing has taken not only to placate its own masses, but also to play to the global gallery.

On most days the Chinese state media include coverage of a range of popular issues such as pollution, corruption, water quality, corporate responsibility or ethnic diversity.

It all plays more or less well internationally and internally, but no-one can rest on their laurels in this fast- moving world.

The dire situation in Sudan, where many hundreds of thousands have already died and millions are stranded in a humanitarian crisis is a case in point. Due to the inability of the Sudanese government either to control its own militias or to halt rebel groups, China, the buyer of most of Sudan's oil, has been targeted on its Sudan policy and has been pressured to do more to end the horror.

China has stalled on such action, however, arguing it has no right to involve itself in the affairs of other countries.

Meanwhile, other issues, such as the treatment of Falun Gong members and the decades-long occupation of Tibet, continue as deeper ripples across the troubled waters of China's global and domestic persona.

Whether China has a right to oppress seemingly legitimate spiritual practices within its borders or to throw its considerable weight into influencing the affairs of other countries, like say Taiwan or Tibet, in its own interests while arguing it has no right to do so in other cases, could become the subject of debate (a fairly quick one I would have thought).

But there is no debate as to whether China is open to that kind of discussion. It is not, and this is the nature of a looming problem as the Olympics get closer.

In short, Chinese government leaders are deluding themselves if they think the Olympics are like a big happy cloak which can be used to cover all manner of unsavory issues, like those mentioned above.

The Olympic torch is more than just a nice symbol, it is an indication that there are consequences of being an Olympic host.

There is no way that China can hope to hide its darker side behind the Olympic rings.

It looks like they're trying nevertheless. A case in point: Chinese state media recently reported gleefully that the United States did not support a proposal to boycott the Games due to China's Sudan policy.

It did not mention that, at the same time, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution calling on China to use its influence to stop the killing in Sudan. That might have been worth a line you would think.

Such attempts to head off scrutiny are clumsy and ill-conceived and will do no good for China's world image. They may yet counter its endeavors, via the Games, to be seen in a better light.

Every country has its dark spots. China's are highly visible and well- watched. Pretending they do not exist is a big, big mistake which will only get bigger as the Games get closer.

They will not go away. That's the incendiary Olympic torch China has actually volunteered to hold.

The extent to which the Beijing policymakers and bureaucrats are able to engage in, at the very least, something like an open debate on these issues is how most of the world will truly test Beijing's global credibility.

It's not the stadium. It's not the medals.

James Rose is editor of
OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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