Olympic torch draws European outrage over Tibet

An athlete, in red and white, runs near the extinguished Olympic torch in Paris.
REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen
An athlete, in red and white, runs near the extinguished Olympic torch in Paris.

The curtain is up on a chaotic drama China didn’t want the world to see when it proudly set the stage for hosting the summer Olympics this year.

As news broke over the weekend of yet another deadly Chinese crackdown over Tibet, thousands of European human-rights advocates met the Olympic torch with outrage. And Americans prepared to do the same on Wednesday.

More ominous for China is a separatist challenge erupting from the nation’s Muslims, who are emboldened by the sympathy Tibet is gathering around the world.

Much as China scrambles to close the curtain, outsiders have a fresh understanding of the regional and ethnic differences seething in that vast and complex nation. What isn’t clear is how China can control them in a globalized future where dissidents will be empowered with new communications technology.

In terms of global stability, the stakes are high. And they help explain why Western leaders, including President Bush, are tiptoeing around questions of their participation in China’s Olympic ceremonies. Of course, China’s economic clout is a prime motivator.

Torch ignites protest
Shortly after Olympic torch bearers set off from the Eiffel Tower in Paris Monday, protests over China’s crackdown on Tibet forced organizers to extinguish the flame twice and rush the torch into a bus to protect it from demonstrators, Reuters reported.

On Sunday, thousands of protesters clashed repeatedly with British police and Chinese security guards along the 31-mile Olympic torch parade through London, the Guardian reported.

A protester tried to wrestle the Olympic flame from a celebrity torch bearer. Two others tried to put out the torch with a fire extinguisher. Several threw themselves in front of the runners. Thousands waved banners proclaiming “Torch of Shame” and “Stop the Killing in Tibet.” Thirty-five were arrested.

“On two occasions when the flame was supposed to be carried on foot — at Bloomsbury Square and Fleet Street — it was instead placed inside a red bus, apparently to shield it from demonstrators breaking police lines,” the Guardian reported.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown greeted the torch outside 10 Downing Street despite intense political pressure for him to withhold official recognition. Throngs of Olympic enthusiasts turned out to honor the torch as heavy snow fell on London.

The only scheduled North American stop for the torch is Wednesday in San Francisco, and Tibetans living in Minnesota are expected to join human-rights advocates from around the nation in protests there.

China has clamped down security since anti-government protest erupted in Tibet three weeks ago, and news from the remote Himalayan region is limited. But the Associated Press reported over the weekend that eight pro-Tibet demonstrators were killed when police opened fire on a protest in Sichuan province.

The information was attributed to overseas activist groups. But the Communist Party boss of Tibet said the region is stable, the Associated Press reported.

Chinese authorities say 22 people have died in anti-Beijing riots in Lhasa, Tibet’s traditional capital. The Tibetan self-proclaimed government-in-exile says up to 140 were killed in the protests and ensuing crackdown. Beijing has repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama and his supporters of orchestrating the violence, a charge the spiritual leader has repeatedly denied.

The protests are the longest and most sustained challenge to Beijing since Chinese communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951. China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially an independent state for most of that time.

Trouble next door
Ethnic unrest is mounting next door to Tibet in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, where Muslims’ resentment over Beijing rule has smoldered for decades.

Now, the situation in Xinjiang is highly volatile, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

Activists with the Uighurs, a large Muslim group, told the Journal that China has been detaining suspected dissidents in the region, which shares a long border with Tibet.

“Tensions had already been building,” the Journal reported. “Chinese officials say they arrested a Uighur woman last month who was part of a failed Muslim separatist plot to hijack a Chinese jetliner. In February, Chinese police also raided what they said was a meeting of Islamic terrorists and shot and killed two men and arrested 15 others near Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.”

Xinjiang is strategically critical for China. It accounts for a sixth of the nation’s territory. It is an important oil-producing region and home to China’s nuclear-weapons test sites. It also has more than 5,600 kilometers (3,480 miles) of borders with eight neighboring states, the Journal said.

The cause of Uighur human rights has drawn far less international attention than that of Tibetans, thanks in part to celebrity backing for Tibet and the charisma of the Dalai Lama. Another factor, Uighur human-rights advocates told the Journal: Uighurs are predominantly Muslim. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, China has sought to portray its battle against Uighur-rights campaigners as a fight against Islamic terrorism.

Now, the Tibetan protests and the pending Beijing Olympics are spurring Uighurs abroad to speak out — and to link their aspirations to those of Tibetans. Thursday, hundreds of Uighur demonstrators gathered in Istanbul for an anti-China protest.

The broad swath of unrest catches Beijing between its desire to appear reasonable to the outside world and its tendency to come down hard when feeling threatened, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.

But too much has changed for the emerging world power to completely revert to the Communist Party playbook of old, analysts told the Times.

“China is facing some traditional challenges and new types of conditions,” said Shen Dingli, a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “This is forcing it to deal with this mixture and adapt.”

Although part of the leadership has shut out the rest of the world, other parts are under pressure to convey at least the appearance of openness, recognition that China increasingly needs the outside world for economic growth, diplomatic acceptance and even domestic political support.

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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