Torch nears end of a troubled road to the Olympics

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 May, 2008, 12:00am

The Olympic torch relay that snaked through 19 cities before its arrival on Chinese soil yesterday was meant to be a time of glory for a rising world power. Instead, it turned out to be a fiasco, with heavy security needed at almost every stop to shield the torch from protesters.

At some stops, the relay route had to be changed at the last minute. In San Francisco, police played hide-and-seek with protesters and supporters alike, and at other stops, the torch was hidden from public sight.

These scenarios seemed to make a mockery of remarks made by Games organising committee chief Liu Qi during the torch-lighting ceremony in the ancient stadium in Olympia, Greece. 'The Olympic flame will radiate light and happiness, peace and friendship, and hope and dreams to the people of China and the whole world,' Mr Liu declared to the assembled crowd.

But the Olympic torch, which is otherwise a symbol of world peace and unity, has become the target for pro-Tibet demonstrators and human rights activists who denounced Beijing's suppression of Tibet protests and other rights infringements.

Added to the already embarrassing situation were suggestions shortly after chaos in London and Paris that the relay might be cut short and future international torch relays scrapped. But the international relay continued, with its last stop on Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

'Chinese officials certainly had not thought there would be so many problems. We have to shoulder the responsibility: we just attached too much importance to it, and its scale was just too huge,' said Zhan Jiang , dean of the journalism department at China Youth University for Political Sciences.

Even the Chinese paramilitary police in blue-and-white tracksuits who ran next to the flame in performing their duty of torch security on overseas stops fuelled discontent. They came under fire for brusquely pushing aside demonstrators on various occasions. Australian and Japanese officials increased their own security details in an attempt to reduce confrontation with the Chinese.

'When the scale of the relay is so huge, it starts to carry political symbolism,' Professor Zhan said.

A mainland scholar, who declined to be named, said some Chinese officials were unhappy with shortened routes of the relay in several overseas legs, but 'they just had too high an expectation of it'.

As for the 'radiating ... peace and friendship' part of Mr Liu's speech, the torch, ironically, also fuelled Chinese people's anger against what they considered the west's unfriendly attitude and bias against their country. They demonstrated on the mainland and abroad.

And yet there was a bright light amid the darkness. Chinese cheered when Jin Jing , a 27-year-old wheelchair-bound former member of China's paralympic fencing team, clung to the torch to shield it from attacks by pro-Tibet demonstrators on April 7 in Paris. Despite the problems, analysts point out that protests are the norm rather than the exception during such international events.

'It was naive of China and the International Olympic Committee to believe - if they did believe - that Beijing could carry off the Olympics without any western protest against ongoing human rights abuses, which are pervasive and severe and which have got worse in the lead-up to the Olympics,' said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York.

'Of course, the torch relay was an obvious target for protests. It would have been smarter to plan a less ambitious torch relay, thus attracting fewer demonstrators.'

Even so, to many Chinese supporters, the disruptions were a slap in the face.

Pro-Tibet and human rights activists insisted they launched the protests not only because Beijing had failed to honour its promise to improve human rights when it bid to host the Olympics - as reflected by its suppression of Tibet protests and the jailing of prominent human rights activist Hu Jia - but also because it was the best opportunity to make their voices heard.

Christophe Cunniet, of Tibet Libre, was among 20 people who formed a human chain to try to block the torch in France. Criticising the heavy security presence and police, who prevented them from flying a Tibetan flag, Mr Cunniet said they felt that 'the Olympics were maybe the last opportunity to put pressure on the Chinese government as China is so much under media attention now'.

'The torch relay should be a peaceful event, but China is politicising the Olympics for its own propaganda,' he said.

Indeed, the awarding of the Olympics to Beijing did lead to deeper reflections in some quarters regarding China's relationship with the rest of the world. The problems in that relationship may have been obscured in light of China's rapid economic development and the more important role that it plays on the world stage.

Susan Brownell, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri and an expert on China's sports and culture who researching the Olympics in Beijing on a Fulbright grant, said there were simply too much misunderstanding and miscommunications between China and the west. They stemmed from differences in languages, history and culture - such as the Chinese notion of 'face', she said.

'Chinese thought: why should we talk to these people as they're so unfriendly?' Professor Brownell said, pointing out that the groups protesting during the torch relay did not actually engage in dialogue with China.

'Isolating China from the world doesn't help the situation ... It's a painful process of engaging China to the west, as China is culturally so different. It's not going to be smooth, but it must be done.'

She said she hoped the forthcoming Olympics would be a platform to bring different people together to engage in debates and ultimately result in greater understanding.

For Yu Wanli , professor at the school of international studies at Peking University, all the controversies surrounding the relay might be a blessing in disguise.

'The process of the torch relay can help Chinese people - including the government and ordinary citizens - to have a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Olympics, which is that there's no need to arbitrarily impose political meaning on it,' Professor Yu said.