Will the Olympic Torch Burn China?

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Ian Walton / Getty

Police officers detain a demonstrator along the route of the Olympic torch relay in London, April 6, 2008.

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Beijing's stance has left many observers puzzled over its inability to mount a more measured response: to practice better crowd control, to manage the media better, to try negotiation instead of knee-jerk repression. Some of the reasons are straightforward: the Communist Party is deeply secretive and highly bureaucratic, and its members are steeped in a longstanding culture of self- preservation. "Part of the head-in-sand problem has to do with entrenched bureaucratic interests," says sinologist Perry Link of Princeton University. "People who have devoted the last 25 years of their careers to 'opposing splittism' can't stop chanting that mantra without puzzlement over what to say instead and without a bit of panic about their own rice bowls and even, almost, their own identities."

Link points out that leaders such as President Hu Jintao are of a generation that got "Soviet-style educations" in the 1950s. "They don't have the knowledge or imagination to make better decisions," Link says. Leaders operate under a system of collective decision making that constrains the state's ability to be flexible in the face of new challenges. Hu is painfully aware that his political position may well rest on the outcome of moves he ratifies on big issues like Tibet, where he served as Party Secretary during the last flare-up of protests in 1989. "Like the bureaucrats beneath them," Link says, top officials "are frightened about their own positions and don't want to been seen as making 'mistakes,' especially mistakes of softness."

This insecurity underlies the central government's heavy-handed tactics and rhetoric, even though repression reduces the country's stature in the global community. "When the rest of the world looks at China, they see this increasingly powerful and confident country spending more and more on its military, its economy booming, its financial power overseas growing," says Wenran Jiang, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. "But when Chinese leadership looks at the country they see the exact opposite: weaknesses everywhere from Tibet to Xinjiang, to rising inflation and civil unrest, environmental disasters and corruption. So the overall mentality of the central authorities is very insecure and nervous." Jiang argues that the only way to move toward a solution in Tibet is to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. But he says leaders are now trapped by their own words, which have fueled passionate nationalist sentiments among ordinary Chinese, who fervently believe that Tibet is Chinese territory. Any appearance of compromise by Beijing would likely be intolerable to the public, Jiang says.

This lack of flexibility in spite of the looming Olympics is worrying, says Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher with New York City-based Human Rights Watch. "Especially now with the Lhasa protests," he says, "they are facing a pressure-cooker period." Beijing will have to keep a lid on Tibet. But Beijing's problems are not confined to Tibet. There have also been rumblings of dissent in Xinjiang province, populated largely by the Uighur Muslim minority group. Protests by thousands of Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group that speaks a Turkic language, over religious issues were reported by rights groups in late March. The Chinese press meanwhile has reported several recent clashes with separatist rebels in the province; in early March, the press reported that a Uighur woman had attempted to bring down a domestic passenger jet with a homemade bomb. Add to that widespread discontent throughout China over issues such as corruption and rapidly worsening inflation (prices of pork have gone up by two-thirds in the past year) and you have what Bequelin calls the makings of a perfect storm.

It's a storm that threatens to blow in just when everyone's watching — and deciding whether they want to participate in China's Olympics. The Prime Minister of Poland has already indicated he will boycott the opening ceremony because of events in Tibet; French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he wouldn't rule out a similar move. U.S. President George W. Bush called his Chinese counterpart Hu to urge Beijing to engage the Dalai Lama in a dialogue. Others could seek to distance themselves from the Games, if only as a precaution against "being seen on television dining with Chinese leaders as the dark reality of what's going on trickles out," as Bequelin puts it. For China, the fear is that what it hoped to keep invisible will become visible to everyone in the world.

The authorities will no doubt make it virtually impossible for journalists to enter Tibet in the months leading up to the Olympics. But it remains unclear exactly how they intend to deal with the estimated 30,000 foreign reporters expected to witness the event, all of them eager to take advantage of Beijing's own regulations specifying that they can interview anyone Chinese who agrees to talk. "They still don't have any idea what is going to hit them or how bad they will look to the outside world," comments one senior Western academic who has close ties to the upper echelons of the Beijing establishment. If its conduct over the past year is anything to go by, Beijing's instinctive reaction to new problems will be to use its heavy hand once more.

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