- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Despite strenuous Chinese efforts to crimp the flow of information out of Tibet on the uprising there, the stream of dispatches continues and has begun to confront Chinese leaders with a dilemma: what to do about the Olympics scheduled to open in Beijing on Aug. 8?

Does China go ahead and risk more adverse reports from the horde of 10,000 athletes, 20,000 foreign journalists, and tens of thousands of spectators who will descend on Beijing? Or do the Chinese renege on their promise to open the country for the games? Or, as has already been speculated in Asia, does China call off the games rather than be subjected to close-up international scrutiny?

President Bush, who has accepted China’s invitation to the games, also confronts with a dilemma. Does the president, who has emphasized human rights in his foreign policy, go to Beijing and appear to condone the actions of a repressive regime? Or does he stay home and incur the wrath of China’s rulers with whom the United States already has tenuous relations?

All this begins to come in to focus tomorrow when the Olympic torch is to be lit in Greece, home of the ancient Olympics, and to start wending its 130-day, 82,200-mile journey ending in Beijing in August. It initiates the showcasing of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse and prominent political actor on the international stage. In sum, the Beijing Olympic games are all about national pride.

Under normal circumstances, anti-Chinese riots in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, might have been passed off as a local disturbance in a China that has recently experienced 75,000 instances of civil strife a year. This time, however, a correspondent for the Economist magazine, published in London, was on the scene by happenstance. So were groups of Japanese and Western tourists who were interviewed after they came out of Tibet.

American newspapers had correspondents, forbidden to enter Tibet, interview Tibetans living in provinces that border on Tibet. More dispatches were cobbled together in Hong Kong. But Russia, host to the winter Olympics in 2014, seemed to ignore China’s problems. A headline in Pravda said: “Chinese prepare to live in hell for 2008 Summer Olympics,” meaning no smoking in public places.

Chinese TV and the Xin Hua official news agency covered the outbursts but played them down. Xin Hua reported: “A handful of lawless people, chanting separatist slogans in downtown Lhasa, burnt civilian houses and shops, destroyed vehicles, killed 13 innocent people, and seriously injured a dozen of law-enforcers.”

The Economist was more vivid: “Chinese shopkeepers in Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter knew better than the security forces that the city had become a tinder-box. As word spread rapidly through the narrow alleyways on March 14 that a crowd was throwing stones at Chinese businesses, they shuttered up their shops and fled. The authorities, caught by surprise, held back as the city was engulfed by its biggest anti-Chinese protests in decades.”

The dispatch by the correspondent, unnamed as is the magazine’s style, went on with trenchant analysis: “Years of rapid economic growth, which China had hoped would dampen separatist demands, have achieved the opposite. Efforts to integrate the region more closely with the rest of China, by building the world’s highest railway connecting Beijing with Lhasa, have only fuelled ethnic tensions in the Tibetan capital.”

His dispatches recalled the gathering of the foreign press and television in Beijing in 1989 when the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, visited China. Those journalists were on hand to report on the eruption of demonstrations by pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square that generated worldwide attention, especially when Chinese troops killed uncounted hundreds of demonstrators.

In reaction to the Tibetan uprising, a spokesman for President Bush said: “We believe Beijing needs to respect Tibetan culture; they need to respect multi-ethnicity in their society. We regret the tensions between ethnic groups and Beijing. The president has said consistently that Beijing needs to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama,” the Tibetan leader exiled in India.

At her briefing Thursday, press secretary Dana Perino indicated that President Bush still intended to go to the Olympics — but was careful not to commit the president. When a correspondent suggested that the president’s presence in Beijing would be seen as a political statement, Mrs. Perino said: “Certainly the president wants to make sure that our athletes have a really good experience.”

That seemed to leave the president enough wiggle room to stay home if the politics of this election year so demanded.

Richard Halloran is a freelance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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