Thursday, April 10, 2008

Human Rights in China- after "Olympic Comic Relief"

Just when you thought the Olympic torch relay couldn't get any more farcical than the "police marathons" seen in London and Paris, the mayor of San Francisco, one Gavin Newsom, manages to achieve something remarkable.

In one move he managed to (briefly) unite Tibetan protestors, a host of others campaigning on various issues where China leaves something to be desired and a significant number of pro-China supporters from amongst San Francisco's sizeable Chinese community. The outbreak of unity was caused by incredulity at Mayor Newsom's extraordinary handling of the relay in his City.

Faced with a potential rerun of London and Paris, he thought it would be a good idea to hide the torch from everyone, whether friend or foe. For nearly an hour it lay cowering in a warehouse before emerging after a bus ride on the other side of the city, miles from where it was supposed to have been. There then followed an astonishing spectacle of the torch being carried by two runners at a time, for reasons of efficiency so they could get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.

The runners were protected first by a couple of the thuggish "Flame Attendants" seen in London and Paris. Some credit must go to San Francisco for not allowing the full contingent to attend this time. There then followed a circle of baton waving police who in turn were covered by Police on large Harley Davidson motorcycles who in turn were surrounded by a looser ring of police on pedal bikes.

As the convoy edged through the less well known San Francisco streets the whole thing took on an air of one of President Bush's visits to the Green Zone in Baghdad rather than the lead up to a a sporting event. You wonder why they bothered at all and didn't just run round a military airfield a few times. If the security continues to get tighter each time, you can imagine that by the time the Torch reaches Australia it will be surrounded by tanks and troops with automatic weapons.

In the end everyone was left disappointed and the torch was whisked away for a "ceremony" at San Francisco International Airport before heading away on a flight to Argentina.

Any attempt to pretend this is business as usual has now been given up with even the head of the IOC acknowledging they are in crisis.

In a sense this has been a human rights equivalent of "Comic Relief" or "Children in Need" i.e. an essentially comic event that is intended to raise awareness of a serious cause or issue amongst a wider public who would not otherwise take an interest in the issue.

Now the torch has left America, the number of cities where people can be expected to turn out and demonstrate in numbers is relatively low. The likely candidates being New Dehli (subject to how far the Indian Government wants to appease the Chinese) and Canberra. Australian PM Kevin Rudd has the unique distinction of having told the Chinese that only Australians will provide security on Australian soil.

Even America suffered indignities from the Flame Attendants including the Torch bearer Majora Carter being forced out of the procession by the Attendants due to the fact she was holding a Tibetan flag.

All this has proved a wonderfully effective way of raising the issue of Tibet and wider human rights in China.

However it is obvious that the travelling circus will come to an end soon. While the Olympic brand has taken a real knocking it is doubtful if this will have any real effect on the collusus that is China.

In actual fact the one danger for those who favour greater human rights in China face is that this should never turn into an "anti-Chinese" campaign. To do so might actually strengthen the Chinese government by creating external enemies who can be used as part of a Chinese nationalistic campaign. We who campaign for Chinese freedom must emphasise that this is for all Chinese and not just Tibetans. After all far more Chinese have died at the hands of the PRC over the years than have Tibetans.

One area I do take heart in is the number of Chinese contributing on international blogs and discussion pages. While they often seem "vetted" Chinese and appear loyal to their government it is a start to begin creating more openess in China.

The great Firewall of China remains but the more communication of whatever form that occurs the greater the chance of progress being made.

The other area that can make a real difference is if we all express a few more reservations about the current Chinese regime, learn a bit more about Chinese history and become better informed.

Maybe if we can all not buy that very cheap Chinese T-shirt some impact will collectively be felt. There is no need to buy an expensive one ! Cheap ones also come from Vietnam, Mexico, Turkey and a host of countries other than China.

This last week has been a great boost to the awareness of Tibetan oppression. However the "Comic Relief" phase will come to an end. Then it will be a question of whether once the Olympics have been and gone, we all return to "normal" or whether we continue to campaign for human rights and raise awareness of abuses in the world's most populous country. It will certainly be a long campaign (maybe decades) but the cause of bringing so many people freedom seems a cause more worthy than most.

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