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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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March 27, 2008 12:48 AM

International furor, domestic solidarity

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Beijingers don't read the Seattle Times.

Few subscribe to Newsweek, Spiegel, Asahi Shimbun or the Washington Post - publications competing to cover a suddenly holy headline: the 2008 Olympics, Darfur and Tibet.

Riots in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, set the world's top presses a-churn on March 14. Counter-protests and arrests kept them churning.

Last month, American film-guru Stephen Spielberg resigned as artistic advisor for August's Opening Ceremonies, linking Sino-Sudanese relations to violence in Darfur (a region of western Sudan). While angry Tibetans spoke out, their exiled spiritual leader - he of the crimson robes and grandfather spectacles - reaffirmed China's Olympics and rallied Western leaders to his cause: open talks with Beijing.

On Monday, members of activists broke up a flame-lighting ceremony and a torchbearer withdrew from the Olympic relay in sympathy with Tibet. Meanwhile, the European Union's president told a German newspaper that EU nations should consider a boycott. Scores, possibly hundreds, of Tibetans and Chinese have died.

All news considered, the 2008 Games are veering toward scandal abroad. Here in Beijing, however, anxious government media have released soothing reports and a plebeian Olympic passion burns on.

'Local spring harvests smoothly carry on - Tibet overcomes adversity and makes way for the plow' testified one headline atop the March 24 edition of China's biggest newspaper - the People's Daily. 'Longing for the flame, welcoming the Olympics' read another.*

"This mess in Tibet, it's insignificant," said a young woman, resting between weight machines in a north Beijing park. "We Chinese just want to participate in the Olympics."

The Darfur-Olympic connection hasn't received much publicity in China, where Sudan ships two thirds of its exported oil. Spielberg's move attracted attention, of course. But Beijingers may regard Africa's wars as mysterious and irrelevant.

"We Chinese love peace," a young man explained. "And what about the U.S.A.? You Americans invaded Iraq and killed many people for oil. All countries need oil. Yes, China deals with Sudan - this is the nature of global trade."

For more than a year, activists and politicians - Hollywood actress Mia Farrow included - have demonstrated against the 2008 Beijing Games on behalf of Darfur, where government forces and a militia known as the Janjaweed have killed or displaced hundreds of thousands.

Farrow and others want Beijing to power United Nations peacekeeping efforts. According to Human Rights First, a U.S. nonprofit, China sold Sudan US$55 million worth of weapons from 2003-2006 and has provided 90 percent of that country's small arms since 2004, when a U.N. embargo took effect.

Beijing has objected to criticism on Darfur - claiming impartiality when it comes to trading partners' internal affairs. Liu Guijin, China's special envoy to Darfur, has praised a Chinese engineering unit - in Sudan for a year, installing a water system for U.N. peacekeepers.

"What's happening in Darfur is not our fault," an elderly woman walking through Beijing Academy of Agriculture Science said. "In fact, we've helped keep the peace in Sudan. It's just that the world likes to blame China."

Civil unrest in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as in the provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, sustained a weeklong media frenzy here. Whereas most reports abroad tied Lhasa's riots/protests to the 2008 Olympics, domestic coverage and online forums stressed Tibetan attacks on Han Chinese.

On March 18, the Beijing Morning Post ran a story titled 'Presently, the Tibet situation remains steady.'

"The government has taken effective action and restored law - Xinhua News Agency," the report began. "In Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, a small number of people have smashed, looted, burned etc. They have sabotaged and harassed the social order, jeopardizing the personal safety and property of others. Departments of the Autonomous Region involved have taken effective, lawful action to maintain Tibet's social stability, defend the sanctity of the legal system and protect the broad masses' fundamental interests. The situation is already under control."

Next, the Morning Post story recapped the events of March 10 and March 14 in Lhasa.

"On the afternoon of March 10, 300 Buddhist priests of the Lhasa Zhaibung Monastery, showing disregard for national law and temple regulations, attempted to enter the city's urban district and create disturbances. They dashed at and verbally abused police officers on duty, showing complete arrogance.

Also on March 10, student priests from the Sera Monastery unfurled a 'snow lion' flag outside of the Jokhang Monastery square and shouted 'Independence for Tibet' and similar slogans. From March 11 to 13, individual Buddhist priests continued to gather, shout reactionary slogans, try officers' restraint, throw stones, splash lime with boiling water and injure several dozen on-duty police officers severely. Three Zhaibung Monastery Buddhist priests also took photographs of each other after performing self-mutilation in an attempt to cover the truth and mislead the public.

On March 14, more trouble was stirred up. Hoodlums gathered at Lhasa's Bakuo Street to shout separatist slogans and carry on beating, smash, looting and burning wantonly. They also assaulted the local Public Security police stations, governmental agencies, banks, stores, gas stations etc. According to preliminary statistics, these hoodlums burned three elementary and middle schools, 22 buildings in all. They also burned dozens of police and civilian vehicles, killing ten innocent people and wounded 12 police officers, two of who are in critical condition. Overall, both national and personal property suffered great losses."*

Various Chinese interviewed for Blogging Beijing reacted strongly to video footage of riots/protests in Tibet and Sichuan broadcast on television and online.

"On T.V. you can see how all the foreigners in Lhasa ran for their embassies," an older man working out near his apartment complex said. "They were afraid of the Tibetans.

"Have Tibetans died? No way. We've all been watching T.V. If they had, we'd know. Just turn on your T.V. - see for yourself. This stuff is on all day."

That Tibet's instability could overshadow or perhaps ruin the 2008 Olympics is an argument made frequently in Europe and the U.S. - and an argument many Beijingers oppose.

"All countries deal with these kind of disturbances," declared the young woman. "Our Tibetans want to kill many people and their ambitions aren't right - independence and disruption. The Dalai Lama is not a spiritual leader - he is a fugitive who directly interferes in Tibet.

"There is no relationship between the Beijing Games and unrest in Tibet. The Olympics are the Olympics."

State-sponsored Chinese media have asserted that Tibet's most famous Lama secretly orchestrated the violence in Lhasa last week. Yesterday, Xinhua released a report called 'Questions and answers about the course of the recent Dalai-backed riots.'

This background, courtesy of the Beijing Morning Post:

  • The Dalai-group rebelled in 1959...unwilling to see new Tibet flourish more and more every day.
  • In the 1960s, the Dalai-group reorganized and rearmed, launching harassing attacks at the border.
  • In the 1980s, the Dalai-group planned a disturbance in Lhasa, attempting to split Tibet from the motherland.
  • In recent years, the Dalai-group has promised orally that it has given up 'Tibetan independence,' but in fact has not stopped its separatist sabotage. During visits to Europe and America last year, Dalai declared many times: "Perhaps 2008 is the essential year, these Olympic Games are the Tibetans' last chance." He also appealed to foreign countries, relating the 'Tibet question' to Beijing's Olympics.*

"I've heard about the boycotts - on T.V. and in the newspaper," the older woman said. "The people campaigning for a boycott think China is a bad country. They think our government treats minorities poorly.

"We are just as moral as the next country. The Dalai Lama has petitioned foreigners to join a boycott, but his program will not succeed. It will fail. The 2008 Games are un-boycottable."

Not all Beijingers follow international sentiment so closely. Yet every person interviewed for Blogging Beijing toed the Party line.

"Boycott? I don't know about that," said a puzzled Beijing Institute of Technology student. "Is it really true? This is just business as usual in Tibet, mere politics. It shouldn't affect the Olympics.

"There's a small war between the government and the Tibetans. Maybe people will protest the torch relay near Mount Everest. Protest or no, the torch will pass through Tibet."

"I haven't heard anything recently about Tibet," a 19-year old restaurant worker mopping up said. "Don't boycott the Games. Human rights in China are pretty good."

On March 24, the flame-lighting ceremony in Olympia was awarded top billing by both the Beijing Morning Post and the Beijing Star Daily - a light, subway newspaper.

A half-page photo of the ceremony accompanied the Morning Post's headline - 'Sacred flame to be lit today.' 'Flame-lighting ceremony moved ahead one hour' ran the Star Daily's bold-faced alert. Tibet didn't make the Star Daily's front page. That newspaper's editors pushed '33 museums now offering free admission' and 'Small ads send real estate business a warning' instead.*

"What a chaotic place," another young woman commented of Tibet. "We Chinese give the Tibetans so much. They shouldn't make trouble like this."

"I've read about these potential boycotts," laughed a sportswear clerk. "It's the Americans and...well, I forget. At any rate, too many people are considering this. They don't understand China. If they did, they wouldn't want to boycott our Olympics.

"Tibet's like Taiwan - it's always been a part of China. So don't boycott the Games. If you do, it's your own loss."

Beijingers don't read the Seattle Times. Like Lhasa's Tibetans, Han Chinese see in these 2008 Games a chance. They're hoping to banish forever that infamous colonial image - China, 'Sick Man of East Asia.'

"I hope the Olympics aren't boycotted," another older man said, shaking his head. "We've waited a hundred years for these Games, and we need them."

* Amateur translation by Blogging Beijing

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