The traditional global relay carrying the Olympic torch to the site of the Games is supposed to convey the inextinguishable vigor of the Olympic spirit. But the Chinese are finding it instead a symbolic disaster. The running of the torch in London Sunday was marred by attempts by human rights protesters to extinguish its fire, but on Monday in Paris the ceremony became an outright farce: security officials doused the flame twice in the face of demonstrations to block its progress, and wound up driving it to the end-of-day handoff ceremony at Charléty Stadium on the edge of the city when the tormented relay was canceled at mid-course. As the torch moves on to San Francisco and Buenos Aires before heading back to Africa and Asia, the organizers of this summer's Beijing Games are facing a grim prospect: that the protests denouncing China's human rights record in Tibet and elsewhere could mount as the torch continues its 85,000-mile, 20-nation voyage.
More than 3,000 French police and security forces formed what was touted as a "hermetic bubble" to protect torch carriers from any intrusion, but the relay came under immediate pressure from well-organized protesters. Just minutes after the 17-mile relay began at the Eiffel Tower, demonstrators carrying Tibetan flags and chanting anti-Chinese slogans moved in so tightly around the torch that officials took it into a bus for protection. Its flame was ultimately extinguished at least twice for what French officials called "technical reasons." Efforts by police to back activists away from the Olympic cortege at times became violent, as did clashes between protesters and pro-China spectators. An unknown number of people were arrested for disrupting the Paris relay; 37 were taken into custody on similar charges in London Sunday.
The relay was eventually cut short, as the flame couldn't hold up against the determination of the demonstrators drawn to it. Hundreds of other activists gathered at the Trocadero esplanade across from the Eiffel Tower to show their support for the Tibetan people during a day of events that was to wrap up with concerts in the evening. Activists in Paris, like their peers in London the previous day, turned an event intended to highlight China's growing political and economic prowess into a police-harnessed reflection of how China treats dissent.
"The Chinese have made sure that for a few hours, Paris will look like Tiananmen Square," noted Robert Menard, head of the Reporters Without Frontiers group, before the Paris protests he helped organize. "I think it's shameful."
The Chinese government would agree that it's shameful, but not in where the blame lies. Though China has remained fairly tight-lipped in the wake of the London and Paris relay fiascos, it earlier denounced efforts by Menard and fellow activists on March 25 to disrupt the lighting of the torch in Greece in March. At that time, the spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, said that "any act to disrupt the Olympic torch relay is shameful and unpopular." He also warned "that competent authorities in countries through which the torch relay will pass have the obligation to ensure a smooth relay." Chinese officials, one presumes, are less than impressed with the efficacy of French and British security officials.
The raucous London and Paris legs appear to have surprised Chinese officials. French popular concern over human rights conditions in China took root only following the brutal suppression of unrest in Tibet last month. Images of that violence prepared the ground for groups like Reporters Without Frontiers, which have called on the French government to use the Beijing Games as a lever to pressure China to increase civil liberties and press freedom. It was in the wake of that spreading disquiet in France that President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first Western leader to suggest he might consider a boycott of the opening ceremonies to protest China's stance on human rights and Tibet.
Given the troubles in France, Chinese officials are now almost certainly even more concerned over the torch's upcoming stops in San Francisco and Sydney. Both cities have large activist communities, which have been especially vocal on Chinese human rights abuses in the past. Both also boast proven records of spectacular and efficient protest organization. Between those two legs, meanwhile, the torch touches down in Delhi, where anger over China's repression in Tibet remains high. The Beijing Olympic torch show, it seems, is only just heating up.