Keeping the flame alight

11 April 2008

Apr 10th 2008
From The Economist print edition
[Source]

Two ways to repair China's image: end the torch relay and take a lead over Myanmar

WERE shooting oneself in the foot an Olympic event, China would surely be well placed for a gold. The Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay, taking the flame around the world before the games begin in August, was always a risk. Of course the flame would draw protesters like moths. But the suppression of riots and protests in Tibet has ensured the torch's progress has graduated from minor diplomatic embarrassment to full-scale public-relations disaster (see article).


An exercise intended to flaunt the new, outward-looking and confident China has displayed its dark side: nervous, repressive, prickly and stubborn. That stubbornness may rule out the obvious remedy: calling the whole farce off before someone is badly hurt. At least the International Olympic Committee should have nothing more to do with it. Protests this week in London, Paris and San Francisco were ill-tempered enough. The passage through Delhi on April 17th could be uglier. India is home to some 100,000 Tibetans. The only stop on the torch's world tour sure to be trouble-free is Pyongyang. As for its proposed procession through Tibet in June, it is hard to imagine a more provocative or insensitive gesture.

To accuse China's critics of “politicising” a sporting event is nonsense. What has the relay to do with sport? It is not some timeworn practice integral to the games. Rather, the idea of a relay from Greece to the Olympic venue was revived by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which is hardly a precedent China wants to advertise. The first “global” relay only took place for the most recent Olympics, in Athens in 2004. But that was not such a circus. China's pride may preclude any concession, however face-saving, on Tibet, or on human-rights abuses in general. But it is also facing criticism for its foreign policy—its links with the governments of Sudan and Myanmar in particular. Here, in theory, it can do something to show that it is indeed a responsible international “stakeholder”, with diplomatic maturity as well as economic clout.

Take Myanmar. After the bloody quelling of the “saffron revolution” last September, the ruling junta threw a few sops to international opinion. It accepted visits from a United Nations envoy, opened talks with the detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and gave a timetable for a political transition. China deserves some credit for forcing the junta's hand. Myanmar's generals are nobody's puppets. But China, with its big commercial interests in the country, and its support in the UN Security Council, is now the junta's best friend.

It is time to use that position again. Confident that the outside world's focus on their misdeeds has shifted elsewhere, the generals have stalled on dialogue both with their opponents at home and the UN's envoy. The plight of their country remains desperate (see article). The political “process” has degenerated into a drive to impose a constitution entrenching military rule. A referendum on this solution will be held on May 10th in a climate of vicious intimidation.

Members of the Security Council are mulling a new statement, calling for some of the minimum reforms needed for a credible vote—such as the release of opposition leaders, including Miss Suu Kyi. The first thing China can do is to allow the statement to be issued in the name of a united outside world. More than that, China could help resolve the sterile debate that has raged for two decades over “engagement” or “isolation”. Isolation has never worked, because China, India and South-East Asian countries see too much commercial and strategic benefit in links with the junta. But nor has “engagement”, since Western countries have imposed sanctions of varying severity, and the junta has little interest in engaging anyway.

Nobody wins gold for sitting on a fence

Despite this, there is a broad consensus about the need for reform in Myanmar. With anti-Chinese feeling mounting in Myanmar, it is not in China's interests to be perceived as the prop that always holds up a loathed regime. It could take the initiative in forming a contact group to engage the junta in talks on economic co-operation and political reform. Even if it excluded Europe and America, such a group, of China, India, some South-East Asian countries and Japan, could help show the generals that they cannot forever survive in the cracks of other countries' disagreements. And it could help show that China is not always, unequivocally, on the side of the thugs.

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