Fallout from Tibet taking glow off Olympics

China's showcase event is clouded by harsh response to uprising
By Edward Cody Washington Post Foreign Service

The riots in Tibet two weeks ago have turned into a major challenge to China's leaders, whose decision to use military force and restrict media access has cast a shadow over hopes for an unblemished Olympics this summer.

The uprising in the remote Himalayan region lasted for barely more than a day. But it generated a worldwide swell of concern. Now, the Games — intended to be a festive coming-out party for modern China — could become a dramatic reminder that the Communist Party still relies on Leninist police tactics and Orwellian censorship to enforce its monopoly on power.

"This is exactly what the party leaders didn't want," said Li Datong, a senior magazine editor who was fired in 2006 after an essay in his publication challenged the party's official history. "This has become a real headache for them."

The fallout from Tibet has not subsided. In Ancient Olympia on Monday, pro-Tibet protesters disrupted a ceremony to light the Olympic torch. On Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested there might be a boycott of the Games' opening ceremony. And on Thursday, as Chinese authorities led foreign reporters on a tour of region in an effort to demonstrate that it had been tamed, a group of monks confronted the journalists, shouting that they were being denied religious freedom.

Criticisms of China on human rights issues have long been rife among foreign activists and some governments, analysts noted, but the Tibet crisis raised their global prominence just as the Olympic Games provided a ready forum to push the message. The protesters who disrupted the torch ceremony in Greece, for instance, got attention on a level that they could not have dreamed of before the riots in Tibet on March 14.

"The leadership could be riding a real tiger with the Tibet issue, in terms of foreign opinion," said David L. Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University and author of a new book on the Chinese Communist Party. "Various and sundry nongovernmental human rights activists smell blood, and they will all be using Tibet to press their causes as well. This will place unprecedented external pressure on the regime, at least in terms of public relations."

As party chief, President Hu Jintao has the most to lose if the shine comes off the Olympics, along with his protege Zhang Qingli, party secretary for Tibet. But Hu's likely successor, Xi Jinping, also has been thrust into the biggest test of his career. Elevated to the Politburo's elite Standing Committee and dubbed Hu's dauphin in October, Xi was assigned last month to provide overall supervision of the Olympic preparations being run day-to-day by Liu Qi, the Beijing party secretary.

Another newcomer to the Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, also has encountered what amounts to a baptism of fire. Formerly the public security minister, in October he became the party's senior official in charge of security. Li Changchun, a veteran Standing Committee member, has played a key role as well, assigned to run the party's propaganda apparatus. Curiously, he left for a visit to Mauritania and other Arab countries as the public relations crisis raged.

With Tibet unrest having seized the public's imagination abroad, the Chinese government already has lost its battle to keep politics out of the Olympics, said Li, the editor. He said the government should brace itself for an onslaught of protests over Tibet, Darfur, human rights and other causes before and during the Games, both in China and outside.

"It's over," he said. "The Olympic Games have already been kidnapped by the Tibet issue." The issue has become so huge, it has been mentioned in the race for the White House, he added: "Even Hillary's talking about it."

The party's security apparatus — the Public Security Bureau, the People's Armed Police and the People's Liberation Army — have blanketed Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited parts of China over the last two weeks. Chinese officials have voiced confidence that the vast deployment can smother what remains of Tibetan unrest in the days and weeks to come.

Given experience, there was no reason to doubt their word. But there is little they can do to apply similar pressure against protesters promising to disrupt the Olympic torch relay at its stops abroad.

Even in China, where authorities have vowed the relay will go on as planned, cracking down hard on foreign protesters — in view of legions of television cameras — would make a mockery of China's Olympics motto, "One World One Dream." Plans to carry the torch to the top of Mount Everest and display it on a run into Lhasa have become particularly difficult to execute without restricting access in a way certain to draw howls from foreign groups.

Already, Olympic officials in Beijing, fearing protests, have refused to reveal the route of the Olympic torch as it moves Monday from its arrival at the airport to Tiananmen Square for a ceremony marking the launch of its world travels.

Despite pledges to allow open reporting during the Olympics, Chinese officials have reacted to the uproar over Tibet mainly by restricting journalists and, in language reminiscent of another era, questioning the motives of critics. Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Tuesday that the protesters in Greece were "shameful" and should be feeling "remorse" for their actions.

By blocking access for foreign reporters and enforcing strict censorship in Chinese media, the government has to a large degree restricted the news about continued unrest in Tibet and Tibetan regions of Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces. China's controlled press has stressed a return to normality; Wednesday's People's Daily showed Tibetan women practicing tai chi moves in the shadow of the iconic Potala Palace in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

Although tough in its attempt to suppress information, the government's initial response on the ground was unusually cautious. At the first explosion of violence March 14, police faded back, leaving the streets open for marauding Tibetans who set fire to shops and attacked Han Chinese businessmen. Only the next day did People's Armed Police restore control of central Lhasa.

Li suggested the Olympics were in officials' minds that day, leading them to order restraint. But other analysts attributed the soft response to confusion and to party secretary Zhang's presence in Beijing for the annual meeting of the Chinese legislature. In any case, Chinese officials have been incensed by appeals from human rights groups denouncing a crackdown.

Hu, the party leader and president, has dealt with these problems before. He was party secretary in Tibet during similar disturbances in 1989 that were put down by the imposition of martial law and dispatch of PLA troops into streets and villages. Historical accounts say dozens of Tibetans were killed and hundreds arrested.

The party leadership, under Deng Xiaoping, decided in 1989 that putting down the Tiananmen and Tibetan protests was worth suffering opprobrium abroad. But the difference now is that China wanted — and still ardently wants — to play a different role at the Beijing Olympics.

The role, that of a modern country embracing the world, has already been compromised by the unrest in Tibet and the way the world is viewing the government's reaction, the analysts said. Shambaugh, at George Washington University, characterized the government's attempt so far to manage its image in the aftermath of the violence as "heavy-handed" — resorting to vilification of the Dalai Lama and questioning the motives of foreign critics.

"The government is not particularly adept at public diplomacy, as they define it as 'external propaganda' and pursue it as such," he said.

But a Beijing-based scholar and political analyst said some party factions do not care much about China's image abroad, even in this Olympic year, provided the party is seen to be firmly in control. "A lot of these guys in a crisis go into the default mode, and that is: Crack down," he said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive subject.

Copyright © 2008 Washington Post Foreign Service

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