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Olympic Torch Relay Puts Chinese Policies in Focus

April 9, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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China is facing increasing scrutiny for many of its policies as the Summer Games in Beijing draw closer -- and protesters have seized the Olympic torch's current global tour as a platform to voice opposition to China's rule of Tibet, among other issues. Two analysts discuss the protests.
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GWEN IFILL: The Olympic torch adds fuel to the ongoing clashes between the Chinese government and human rights activists. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports on today’s developments in San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: Protesters were back on the Golden Gate Bridge today, as the big demonstration around the Olympic torch got underway in San Francisco.

Even before the relay run began, China’s supporters and those critical of the Chinese scuffled at different points along the route.

The torch’s appearance in San Francisco was the only North American stop on a global tour. Activists from both sides were out on the streets.

TIBETAN PROTESTER: The Chinese government in Tibet, they’re killing our Tibetans, innocent Tibetans.

SPENCER MICHELS: We also found throngs of pro-Chinese supporters, some local, some from China.

PRO-CHINA SUPPORTER: I come here just to show my support to the Beijing Olympic Games.

SPENCER MICHELS: Throughout the week, the demonstrators were decrying China’s role in Sudan and Darfur and its latest crackdown in Tibet, as well as its policies toward dissent.

Last night, actor Richard Gere and the human rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu attended a vigil near city hall that attracted hundreds of people in support of Tibet.

The Olympic flame — meant to be a symbol of peace — has instead become a lightning rod for protest throughout its tour. Under cover of darkness, it arrived in San Francisco yesterday morning in a protected lantern and was whisked away to a secret location for safety.

Runners have been lighting the torch from this so-called “mother flame” in the lantern each time a relay is run.

That flame has ignited clashes this week in London and Paris, where the runners were assaulted and the flame was extinguished five times during its 18-mile route.

The momentum of this week’s events has caught San Francisco officials by surprise. What they did not anticipate — at least not at first — in this city, with a large Chinese population and a history of demonstrations, was the size and the depth of the protest against China’s policies in Tibet and its human rights policies.

It’s all caused San Francisco officials and law enforcement from around the state to increase security. Just before today’s relay began, police shortened the relay route even further and changed the start point.

Hundreds of police were out monitoring the route, and each runner was protected by three layers of security. The FAA has also restricted flights over the city.

China, which has staked its national pride on this summer’s games, has asked protesters to separate sport from politics.

The International Olympic Committee will meet later this week to determine if the torch should finish out the 13 remaining relays around the world before it tours through China. The next relay is scheduled for Friday in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

GWEN IFILL: Late today, after Spencer filed that report, San Francisco officials changed the route significantly to avoid crowds and protester, which leads us to this question: How should the international community respond? Margaret Warner picks it up from there.

Leaders could use boycott leverage

Sophie Richardson
Human Rights Watch
The Chinese government has placed a tremendous emphasis on presenting to the world at a time of unprecedented scrutiny a very particular image of China as modern, cosmopolitan, governed by the rule of law.

MARGARET WARNER: And we have two views on that question. Sophie Richardson is the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. And retired Army Maj. Gen. John Fugh is chairman of the Committee of 100, an advocacy group of prominent Chinese-Americans. Former judge advocate general of the Army, he then headed a succession of prominent U.S. companies in China, including McDonnell Douglas and Enron International.

We invited the Chinese government to appear on this issue twice this week, but Chinese embassy officials declined.

Welcome to you both.

Sophie Richardson, let me begin with you. It's pretty clear that the Beijing Olympics are going to be held in Beijing. What are human rights activists trying to accomplish with these protests?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON, Asia advocacy director, Human Rights Watch: Well, the Chinese government has placed a tremendous emphasis on presenting to the world at a time of unprecedented scrutiny a very particular image of China as modern, cosmopolitan, governed by the rule of law.

And really what a lot of these protests are doing outside the country, because they can't take place inside the country, is to call that veneer into question and to make sure that the rest of the world is aware that there are serious human rights abuses going on inside the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Human Rights Watch wrote to international leaders calling on them to, what, boycott the opening ceremonies?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: We've asked them to postpone their decisions to attend those ceremonies and in the interim to use their leverage to press the Chinese government for important human rights changes.

Protests could backfire

Retired Maj. Gen. John Fugh
Committee of 100
I believe that we should engage China on a patient basis, a steadfast basis, to persuade them that, as a growing power in the global scene, they should improve their human rights record.

MARGARET WARNER: General Fugh, should international leaders respond? Should they, in fact, try to use the Olympics as a way to pressure the Chinese government?

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH, chairman, Committee of 100: Well, my view is that certainly people have a right here to demonstrate and protest, but my question is whether or not that will lead the Beijing regime to improve its record on human rights.

There's, of course, a diversity of opinion on that issue. But my personal belief is that it will not.

I believe that we should engage China on a patient basis, a steadfast basis, to persuade them that, as a growing power in the global scene, they should improve their human rights record. But by demonstration and protest, or even lead to potential boycott of the Olympics, is not the way to do it, in my opinion.

MARGARET WARNER: And, general, how do you think that the Chinese government is responding and likely to respond to just the protests that have occurred so far, and, in fact, some of the statements we've heard from some foreign leaders, at least raising questions about whether they'll go to the opening ceremonies?

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH: I have no idea how they're reacting to this. By the way, the Committee of 100 is for constructive relations between the United States and greater China. We're not an advocate group for China alone.

MARGARET WARNER: I understand that. Yes, but, I mean, do you think that the Chinese government is likely to respond positively to this pressure or negatively?

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH: I am inclined to think they would respond negatively to the widespread protests that we have seen so far. And, again, the question is whether or not these protests and demonstrations will lead the Beijing regime to improve its human rights record. And I don't think it will.

MARGARET WARNER: And why not?

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH: Well, because there is a great deal of pride that you mentioned earlier in the Chinese people on the Olympics. And if there's going to be any boycott later on, there's going to be a tremendous loss of face and humiliation that, in my opinion, is going to have a negative impact that will affect adversely our broader interests between the United States and that country.

Seeking a united front

Sophie Richardson
Human Rights Watch
There's also room for drawing greater public attention, particularly when there has been such intransigence even on fulfilling basic human rights promises that the Chinese government made in order to get the games in the first place.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that is, in fact, possible here, Sophie Richardson, that, in fact, you'll see a backlash from the Chinese government?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Well, I think that retrenchment is possible if world leaders don't present to the Chinese government a reasoned explanation of why it is not only in China's interests, but in the world's interest that it improve its human rights record.

After all, some of the basic changes that everyone seeks -- improvement to the rule of law, for example, or greater press freedom -- don't just benefit the outside world, but they benefit not just the Chinese people, as well, but also the government, in terms of its ability to rule the country in a way that's actually going to result in less protests. It's in their own interests to do this.

MARGARET WARNER: But is it possible that, in fact, this kind of public pressure will only have the contrary effect, as the general seems to be at least suggesting? He's not speaking for the Chinese government, but that's his analysis.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: I think it's really a combination of different kinds of pressure, you know, that it has to be both reasoned and quiet in sort of the normal way. I mean, 90 percent of what the State Department does all the time is sort of quiet diplomacy.

But there's also room for drawing greater public attention, particularly when there has been such intransigence even on fulfilling basic human rights promises that the Chinese government made in order to get the games in the first place.

U.S., China inextricably connected

Retired Maj. Gen. John Fugh
Committee of 100
If this is going to result in some sort of boycott of the Olympics, that's going to make the Chinese feel that they have really done this for naught. They lose face; they're humiliated.

MARGARET WARNER: General, how do you think -- go right ahead. Were you going to say something?

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH: No, I'm listening to you.

MARGARET WARNER: OK. My question is, I understand the Chinese public isn't seeing a lot of this right now, unless they manage to kind of get around certain Internet controls, but surely some word is going to filter back.

If, in fact, these protests continue around the world, if, in fact, you have a number of leaders decide to stay away from the opening ceremonies, how do you think the Chinese people are likely to respond?

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH: Well, I think they will be -- they have a sense of humiliation, because they look upon the Olympics as the opportunity, the first opportunity for China to come on the world stage as sort of a coming-out party.

And if the boycott of, say, the opening event should occur and a lot of the leadership failed to show, I think the Chinese people will find out about that one way or another and they will feel humiliated.

MARGARET WARNER: And what's the consequence of that?

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH: The consequence of that could be very averse, in my opinion. Because if you look at what happened the last 20 years, the people in China, there's been tremendous improvement in terms of the standards of living and certain measure of prosperity.

And a survey we did recently about the people in China, 80 percent of whom feel that China is on the right track and they're very encouraged by the way that China is going.

But if this is going to result in some sort of boycott of the Olympics, that's going to make the Chinese feel that they have really done this for naught. They lose face; they're humiliated. And then I think that's going to have an impact on their broader interests of the United States, as well as other countries.

MARGARET WARNER: The United States, Ms. Richardson, does have broader interests with China. China holds billions of dollars in U.S. debt. The U.S. depends on China for cooperation on issues ranging from North Korea or certain matters at the Security Council.

Is there a risk for the United States, in terms of other interests it has, if, in fact, President Bush were to accede to some of the demands in your letter?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: I think, in fact...

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH: Well...

MARGARET WARNER: No, I'm sorry. Let me -- I'll first ask Ms. Richardson and then I'll go to you, sir.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: I think, in fact, it's not an issue of risk but, in fact, of double the gains. Again, you know, we don't see human rights and security or human rights and trade as two separate realms. In fact, they're really fundamentally connected, and improvements in one are going to get you improvements in the other.

MARGARET WARNER: General, briefly, if you would, do you think that the Chinese government would retaliate at all against U.S. interests when you said broader national interests are at stake?

RETIRED MAJ. GEN. JOHN FUGH: I'm not sure they will retaliate, but they're certainly going to have some very, very bad feelings toward the whole situation if it gets to that stage. I can't say whether or not they will retaliate, but they will certainly have very bad feelings about it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, a debate that's sure to continue. Maj. Gen. John Fugh and Sophie Richardson, thank you both.