Hope now for progress on Tibet and peaceful Games
The Olympic torch relay made its way through Lhasa yesterday amid heavy security, including a curfew. The most politically sensitive leg of the relay, originally scheduled for three days was, following the Sichuan earthquake, first shortened to one day and then to eight hours. In the end, it was completed in just two hours. Thankfully, it finished without any violence or disruption.
Widespread protests, mostly concerning Tibet, had greeted the torch during its international legs. This prompted a strong backlash among people on the mainland, who approached the domestic legs with enthusiasm. There were scenes not just of joyous celebration, but of people uniting to support the Beijing Games and counter the protests overseas.
However, the mood both inside and outside China has shifted dramatically since the devastating earthquake in Sichuan on May 12. The tragedy united the country in grief, and Beijing's swift, competent and compassionate handling of the crisis won it respect from other countries, including those which had been quick to denounce its tough response to the deadly riots that broke out across Tibet in March.
A more sombre approach has, understandably, been adopted towards the Olympics following the earthquake.
The quake - which killed at least 70,000 people and left more than 5 million homeless - has created new priorities. There are other pressing economic issues, such as a threateningly high inflation and rising food and fuel costs. The magnitude of the quake disaster has muted supporters of Tibet in the west and probably made it difficult and impolitic for many to plan protests in August during the Beijing Games. They are unlikely to gain much support or sympathy, least of all from Chinese people, if they try. Some pro-Tibet groups overseas said yesterday that proceeding with the relay there was unnecessary and irresponsible because it was too provocative. But from Beijing's perspective, Tibet is an integral part of China; the whole idea of the domestic relay is that it should pass through every part of the nation.
While it is sad to see the relay conducted under such tight security, with only specially invited spectators allowed to witness it, this did at least prevent further violence, which would have inflamed the situation at a time when there is a need for calm and rational discussion in the wake of rioting in the city on March 14 which officials said left 14 people dead. Activists claim scores died. It is significant that despite all that has happened, Beijing is continuing dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama. Very little seems to have come out of the talks yet, but that is to be expected at this stage. That both sides are continuing to engage each other is encouraging. The Dalai Lama has said repeatedly that he is only seeking autonomy for Tibet, not independence. Clearly, he must seize what may be his last chance to deliver something meaningful for Tibet. Beijing also has an incentive to engage the Dalai Lama - better the spiritual leader than uncompromising radicals who demand full independence. There is a need for both sides to strive to resolve the problems in Tibet which led to the riots.
It is to be hoped that now the most politically sensitive leg of the relay has been conducted peacefully, the talks will lead to progress and that everyone can look forward to a peaceful Olympics.