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Olympian Rhetoric: Propaganda Traps China’s Leaders

SOURCE: AP/Odd Andersen

The Olympic torch makes its way to Beijing for the 2008 summer Olympic games.

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As the Olympic torch continues its beleaguered tour around the world, all eyes are on China. What was to be the prelude to China’s extravagant coming-out party is rapidly deteriorating into a global human rights protest. Premiering in London, Paris, and San Francisco, the torch’s voyage has brought together thousands in a rare opportunity to take China to task for its human rights record in Tibet, as well as its reluctance to withdraw its support for a genocidal government in Sudan. This poses a dilemma for China’s leaders as they attempt to figure out how to proceed.

Politically sensitive to international opinion but unwilling, or unable, to appear soft to its people, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has painted itself into a corner. As the torch makes its way to Asia for the first time, the leadership is caught between international opinion demanding that China recognize its human rights failings and domestic pressure from its own citizens, who want their government to respond sternly to events in Tibet and global criticism of the country’s actions.

The latter is, in part, a result of the government’s own doing. The Chinese leadership has played up nationalist sentiments in response to the unrest in Tibet and Olympic torch protests. Together, the Chinese government and the public have stirred up ethnic tensions in the country by accusing Tibetans of victimizing the Han Chinese who live in the region. Media coverage has focused on the violence committed against Han Chinese but given no coverage to the government’s heavy-handed military crackdown.

State propaganda alleges that Tibetan “terrorists” are at fault for the recent violence there, and that the West is linking the massacres in Darfur to the Olympics for unfair political reasons. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang lashed out at the Western media for “irresponsible reports which violated professional ethics,” while the hard-line leader of the Communist party in Tibet Zhang Qingli blamed the Dalai Lama for the unrest in Tibet and abroad and vilified the spiritual leader as a “wolf in monk’s robes.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese government and media have spun the Olympic protest coverage into rallying cries of nationalism. For many in China, Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics is the opportunity to showcase the country’s astonishing economic growth and its development into a powerful and modern nation. The Chinese government and media have conveyed to its people that the Olympics symbolize China’s long-awaited ascension to the pantheon of great countries, and that the torch protests constitute attempts by the West and the “Dalai cliques” to steal that moment from them.

Soon, though, Chinese nationalism will face a test in China—in Hong Kong, to be precise—where human rights activists have long campaigned against the communist leadership’s domestic human rights abuses. Local and foreign activists against China’s Tibetan crackdown and involvement with Sudan will also take to the streets of this city when the torch arrives in late April, enabled by Hong Kong’s continued democratic freedoms after the handover to China in 1997. The anticipated protests have the IOC so worried it sent an internal memo recognizing the possibility of serious injuries and even deaths in the final flashpoint of the torch’s trip.

All this will leave China’s leaders to face a difficult situation. If China continues its current pattern of scapegoating Tibet and rejecting international pressure on Darfur and Chinese human rights, then the protests will continue to rumble on, hurting the country’s international reputation at just the time the Olympics are supposed to burnish China’s image abroad. Several world leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, have already stated they will not be attending the Games’ opening ceremonies.

Moreover, as China’s leaders continue their campaign against the Dalai Lama, they will make it more difficult for themselves to open the door to dialogue with the Tibetan leader—the very thing world leaders are pressuring China to do. Yet, the government simply cannot make any public concessions lest it be perceived by the increasingly  nationalist Chinese people as weak—a deadly flaw for any Chinese ruling regime if history is any guide.

China’s leaders need to do what’s right. They must find a moderate, pragmatic approach to quell the fiery nationalism in the country and create an environment conducive to compromise that will allow them to sit down with the Dalai Lama and hold a much-needed dialogue. If China’s leaders want its claims about the situation on the ground in Tibet to be believed, then they should grant unrestricted access to Western journalists—not the government-sponsored road trips that only show reporters what the government wants them to see.

That step, in tandem with the recent announcement by the Dalai Lama that some of his aides and representatives of the government in Beijing have been in talks, could ease tensions over Tibet. Although the Buddhist spiritual leader and head of Tibet’s government in exile admitted he was neither directly involved in the talks nor privy to their content, they are a promising, albeit small, sign that China may begin to realize their current approach is no way to gain the international respect that it desires.

These talks should be fostered by the United States in partner with other countries, using the “quiet diplomacy” that National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley advocates. Any boycott of the opening ceremonies should be kept on the table to use as leverage in the coming months.

The end goal for China and the democracies of the world is a calm political atmosphere that will be conducive to dialogue and progress on Tibetan autonomy, on Darfur, and on human rights in general. Only dialogue will lead to the respect that China’s leaders and the vast majority of its people want from the rest of the world, which also happens to be the only real way to bring about change in a country still controlled by authoritarian leaders. The United States should continue to encourage this sustained process of reform, recognizing that its “quiet diplomacy” may well work toward quiet, but significant and necessary change.

Winny Chen is a Research Associate for National Security and International Policy who works for CAP Senior Vice President Rudy DeLeon. Matthew Rogier is an intern working with the National Security team.

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