Protesting the Olympic Flame

Trip Start Jan 14, 2008
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Flag of France  ,
Monday, April 7, 2008

I have seen the Olympic flame twice today. The first time, it was being carried down the steps of the Eiffel tower. The second time, it was being run along the banks of the Seine. Both times, large police escorts accompanied it. Both times, its passing was accompanied by the shouting of agitated crowds, some cheering for China, most protesting for Tibet.

I don't know where I stand in all this.

On the one hand, the Chinese people have a right to be proud of their country. It is a great honor to host the Olympic Games, an honor of which they should be justly proud. On the other hand, I am deeply disturbed by reports that I've heard about China's preparations for the games. Extended families are being torn from their ancestral dwellings and made to live in new housing developments outside of Beijing. Dissenting voices are being squashed down even more than is usual in China, and workers are going overtime to make up for the fact that all of China's factories will be closed for weeks before the games to cut back on the pollution and the smog. China is doing its best to make sure that it looks good in the eyes of the world when the world comes to visit in August. "Good," to China means peaceful, clean, modern, and uniform. Unfortunately, it's sweeping everything that doesn't fit its new image as a modern power under the carpet and hoping that the rest of the world won't notice that the carpet is there. But it is.

With regards to Tibet, I don't know many details of the political history. I know that at one point Tibet was a province of China.  I also know that it was independent for many years also, and that its customs and culture are different from those of China. It is a specific form of Lamaist Buddhism that is practiced there, distinct from both the Indian and Chinese Buddhist traditions. I know that Tibetan Buddhism is peaceful, and I have immense respect for the Dalai Lama, who has filled the dual role of political and spiritual leader with more grace than could be expected of any ordinary mortal. I believe that Tibet has a right to be independent, and that the Tibetan people have a right to their homeland and to the free practice of their religious beliefs.

The Olympic Games are putting the spotlight on the China-Tibet issue, and I can understand why Tibetan people and their supporters are seizing the opportunity to make their situation known. It's a good opportunity for them to try to get resolution, and they hope that being in the world spotlight will make China want to look good and make the magnanimous act of returning Tibet's independence. Unfortunataly, I highly doubt that this will happen. Acknowledging Tibet's independence will involve acknowledging that China itself was in the wrong, and I don't think that China is willing to do that just yet. Far easier just to crack down on dissent, as it has done in the past, and pretend that nothing is wrong.

To bring the issue back to the Olympics themselves, Beijing has been chosen as the location for the 2008 Games, and nothing is going to change that. Regardless of whether or not China grants Tibet's independence before the Games begin, the Games themselves are supposed to be separate from politics. Traditionally, the Olympics are meant to foster community, to create a time and a place in which nations put aside their differences and engage in peaceful competitions. Traditionally, the neutrality of the games should be sacrosanct. I don't know if neutrality will be respected, this time around. I hope that by the time the flame that passed through Paris today reaches Beijing, some resolution will be reached. But even if noting has been resolved at that point, I hope that people will be willing to put aside their differences for the duration of the Games. Because putting aside differences, in the end, is what the spirit of the Olympics is about.
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