When China bested four other finalists to host the 2008 Summer
Olympics, the win brought a new global status but also renewed
scrutiny on its handling of free speech and human rights, particularly
in the area of Tibet.
Beijing was building its sports arenas, training its volunteer
corps and setting new rules for its citizens' behavior during
the Olympics -- no spitting, don't cut in line -- the long-standing
issue of its governance of Tibet bubbled to the surface.
March 10 marked the 49th anniversary of a failed Tibetan protest
against Chinese rule in 1959, after which the Dalai Lama left
the country. Streams of Buddhist monks marked the anniversary
by marching in the streets of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.
Anti-Chinese protesters smashed vehicles and burned shops --
particularly Chinese-owned ones. That touched off violent clashes
with police that lasted for several days. Authorities said 16
people died in the violence and more than 300 were injured, the
Associated Press reported.
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao put the blame squarely on the
Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and his supporters,
saying they wanted to cause chaos ahead of the Olympics.
"We have ample facts and plenty of evidence that the incident
was organized, masterminded and incited by the Dalai Lama clique,"
the premier said. "The protesters want to incite a sabotage
on the Olympics in order to achieve their unspeakable goal."
But the Dalai Lama denied the accusations, saying, "China's
prime minister accused me [of] all these things I started. Absolutely
not. If prime minister come here and investigate thoroughly all
our files, all record [of] my speech, the prime minister will
know. That prime minister knows how much this [was] started by
The Chinese government dispatched hundreds of paramilitary police
to patrol the region's streets to quell the violence. Officials
urged tourists to stay away from the western Gansu and Sichuan
provinces, where most of the clashes occurred, and banned reporters
from the area.
After the protests, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang
Yu defended the state of Chinese-Tibetan relations at an April
10 press conference, "The Chinese government is committed
to the protection and promotion of human rights of Chinese people
of all ethnic groups. Thanks to the preferential policies by the
central government, Tibet has enjoyed rapid economic and social
development. The culture is well-protected there, and the Tibetan
people's freedom of religious belief is also fully safeguarded
She also emphasized that the situation in Tibet was an internal
affair, which reflects China's long-held stance that countries'
sovereignty should be respected. "We hope the international
community can respect and understand the solemn position of the
Chinese government and people. I would like to stress that Tibet
affairs are China's internal affairs, and any foreign government
or organization has no right to interfere with (them)."
offers from the Dalai Lama and intense international pressure,
the Chinese government in late April agreed to hold talks with
aides to the spiritual leader, the official Xinhua News Agency
quoted unnamed government officials as saying. International leaders
said they were encouraged by the reports.
The way the Chinese government handled the protests in Tibet
had a direct connection to the Olympic Games, said Minxin Pei,
senior associate in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace.
"China took very effective, though widely criticized, measures
to quell the unrest in Tibet, in large part because China wants
to ensure that the country will be politically stable on the eve
of the Olympics," he said. "It wanted to end the unrest
speedily -- otherwise, Tibet will be a festering problem that
may ruin the Olympics."
"Of course, Beijing has resumed dialogue with the Dalai
Lama recently because it responded to international pressure.
China understands that showing flexibility on the Tibetan issue
after the unrest there will help quell the call for boycotting
the games or its opening ceremony," Pei said.
Calvin Chen, an assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke
College, said the Chinese government showed unusual restraint
in its handling of the protests.
"When the first riots broke out in Lhasa, there were Hong
Kong reporters who had very extended video clips. What they showed
-- and their commentary was -- that 'there are no cops around!
Why are they so restrained?'" he noted.
The government "did not want to be repressive and remind
people of June 4th, 1989, when the tanks moved into Tiananmen
Square. They were trying to be restrained, but then it got out
of control and they had to send in the officers," he said.
When the Olympic torch relay began this spring, another dynamic
came to light. The torch run incited pro-Tibet and anti-China
protests, who interrupted the relay through several European cities
and San Francisco and grabbed news headlines in the process. Pro-Chinese
demonstrators, however, also lined the routes to show their nationalism.
As more foreign press enter the country in the lead up to the
Olympics, China's message on Tibet has become harder to manage.
During a government-guided press tour of a monastery, after foreigners
were allowed back into Tibet, a group of monks gathered in front
of the tour. They countered the government line that the exiled
Dalai Lama had incited the earlier riots and complained about
China's oppressive rule, before police intervened and separated
them from the journalists.
"We were all surprised by that," recalled Chen. "The
past pattern has been to say, 'OK, we're going to take you into,
say, a monastery, and you see the monks, everybody's really happy.'
... So it really was a surprise to all of us to see that. It was
very unusual, so I would say it doesn't fit their past pattern
Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, explained:
"Apparently, this was vetted beforehand and they thought
they had some monks who would certainly provide very positive
statements about what is going on in China vis-a-vis Tibet, but
that did not happen. ... It certainly conveyed a very different
impression, a very honest impression, of what is going on."
London, the incident was an example of the government's struggle
to let in observers while still casting events in a positive light.
"There are two things that are going on. One is, obviously,
there is a crackdown that's occurring; it's not only occurring
in Tibet. ... There is also an attempt to put a gloss over this,
to create the impression that things are really quite satisfactory,
that people do have civil rights, and so you will have what I've
described before as a kind of Potemkin village in China, where
they will try and put the best possible face they can on the Olympics."
The Chinese government has countered that activists are using
the attention from the Olympics to try to tarnish China's image.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said party leaders welcome suggestions
and "criticism out of good will," according to the state
news agency Xinhua.
Some of China's reaction to the Tibet protests also has historic
roots. In the 19th century, China went from the premier regional
power to a colonial asset. This treatment at the hands of the
West remains fresh in the minds of many Chinese, and is likely
the biggest reason the government has flatly refused to consider
giving up Tibet, especially at the behest of Western protests,
explained Vera Schwarcz, chairwoman of the East Asian Studies
Program at Wesleyan University.
"If you look at China through history with disunity and
imperialism and war into the 20th century, the ideal of symbolic
unity of China is so important to so many people," said Schwarcz.
"When Mao took power, in 1949, October 1st, he stood in Tiananmen
Square, in his very thick Henanese accent, he didn't say 'The
Communist Party won,' like the Bolsheviks did in the Soviet Union.
He said, 'The Chinese people have stood up.'
"This is a people -- not just a party, but a people -- that
sees itself as kneeling, forced to kneel in front of the world
and [it is] eager to get off its knees," she said.