The former silk road oasis of Hetian perches on the edge of China's Taklimakan Desert, a gravelly wasteland of scrub and rock. The city is far even for Chinese—it would be five time zones away from Beijing, if the regime allowed more than one official time in China—but news travels. Last week word emerged of a March 23 protest among Hetian's Muslim Uighur population, long resentful of Han Chinese domination. Yet when reached by phone, four local officials curtly denied reports of a protest, arrests or a curfew. "You should not spread rumors! It's been peaceful here!" said one. Others rudely declared, "No demonstrations!" or hung up. This was all the more puzzling given that the city-government Web site for Hetian (the Uighurs call it Khotan) and another official Web site stated that an incident had taken place on market day, when as many as 100,000 people converge on the city's fabled bazaar. A "tiny number" of people representing the forces of "separatism, terrorism and extremism" unfurled a "splittist" banner in the bazaar, one site said. It went on to declare that police had responded, the incident was handled "according to law" and nobody was hurt.
Is that really such a difficult message to get straight? In recent weeks China has been acting less like a budding superpower than a tin-pot dictatorship—petulant, preachy, defiant. Global audiences have seen images of truncheon-wielding riot police, sent to Lhasa and other Tibetan areas to quell anti-Beijing protests that began on March 10. Chinese officials talk of dark plots, re-education programs, Western media "bias." Each new clampdown—and the shrill agitprop that accompanies it—seems guaranteed to antagonize not only China's restive Tibetan and Uighur minorities but also the nations scheduled to compete at the Olympic Games in Beijing this August. But those aren't the audiences Beijing cares most about pleasing. "A government official I met actually referred to a 'crisis' of [international] public opinion," says John Kamm, a well-connected former businessman who now lobbies for the release of Chinese prisoners of conscience. Even so, he adds, "I don't see any sign the government is going to make concessions."
This has long been Beijing's trade-off: to keep a majority of Chinese loyal, at times by pandering to their most xenophobic prejudices, at the risk of offending the rest of the world. If China craves international legitimacy, the regime fears the nationalist ire of the people even more. The question is whether the old pattern can survive this fraught Olympic year. For at least a year, Darfur activists have been calling this summer's Games "the genocide Olympics," hoping to shame Beijing into helping to stop the killing in western Sudan. Now the Games have set off a string of protests around the world. Demonstrators marred the lighting of the Olympic torch in Greece, and Uighur activists tried to disrupt its route in Turkey last week. Plans to run the flame up Mount Everest in May and through Lhasa in June are sure to provoke outbursts.
Few foreign dignitaries have committed to boycotting the opening ceremonies, and a consumer backlash against Olympic sponsors has not materialized yet. But with hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the Games, companies have reason to worry. "They're facing serious risks to their reputations," says one public-relations consultant working in Beijing, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation against his firm and its high-profile clients. Several big sponsors, including Coca-Cola, GE and UPS, are trying to ward off criticism by pointing to aid pledges they've made to help refugees in Darfur—more than $5 million in Coke's case.
This summer's Games were meant as a graduation ceremony for China's ascension to superpower status. Beijing is in danger of flunking. "China now finds itself under pressure to manage these internal issues, such as ethnic unrest, in a way that doesn't scandalize people [abroad]. That's a new expectation," says the PR consultant. He acknowledges that such issues would be growing in importance even without the Games but says, "What the Olympics does is turbocharge the attention."
When Beijing was awarded the Games back in 2001, the hope was that their staging would push China to open up. In an April 2 letter to the Free Tibet Campaign, a copy of which was obtained by NEWSWEEK, Coca-Cola CEO E. Neville Isdell used the same argument to defend his company's sponsorship of the torch relay: "We believe ... using the event to put political pressure on China would erode the ability of the Olympic Games to make a contribution to lasting change in China and its relationship with the rest of the world."
But precisely because Beijing is determined to hold a picture-perfect Olympics, the government has declared war on anyone who might pose a problem. The targets are not all as distant as Uighurs and Tibetans; last week a Beijing court sentenced 34-year-old activist Hu Jia to three and a half years in prison on charges of "inciting subversion of state power." If anything, the barring of foreign observers and media from Hu's trial suggests legal proceedings are becoming even "less transparent and more opaque" than before, says Kamm. His San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation anticipates that the number of political prisoners in China this year will exceed last year's count (742) because of an expected influx of Tibetan inmates and cyberdissidents.
Each new protest inspires others. Trouble broke out in Lhasa on March 10, the anniversary of a failed 1959 Tibetan revolt, and the unrest worsened when authorities began locking down the city's monasteries. Even after troops quelled the violence in the Tibetan capital, eruptions continued in surrounding provinces until at least April 3. Exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer says members of her ethnic group in the far western province of Xinjiang were inspired by the Tibetans—and angered by a pre-emptive curfew that was imposed to keep Uighurs from repeating the Lhasa blowup. She claims that up to 1,000 women were involved in the Hetian protest, demanding the lifting of a ban on wearing headscarves.
Before Tibet erupted, Beijing was doing a comparatively smooth job of handling international criticism. The primary issue for Olympic protests was China's refusal to lean harder on its friends in Khartoum for an end to Sudan's government-backed ethnic cleansing in Darfur. When Steven Spielberg quit as a creative adviser to the Games in February over the Darfur issue, Beijing handled the decision with relative equanimity. As recently as March 7 the government made its special envoy to Darfur available for a meeting with Olympic sponsors.
But the question of Tibet, or indeed any of China's restive minority regions, touches upon Beijing's worst fears of national dissolution. At a March 2 concert in Shanghai, Icelandic singer Björk startled her audience by ending her last song, "Declare Independence," with shouts of "Tibet! Tibet!" After that incident, Chinese apparatchiks "started freaking out," says one Beijing-based diplomat, who was not cleared to speak on the record. All sorts of creative projects involving foreigners suddenly had to be approved by China's cabinet.
Since the Lhasa protests, foreign ambassadors in Beijing have been summoned to the Foreign Ministry at all hours—even on Easter Sunday. They've been lectured on China's version of events; shown a lengthy video on a March 14 "beating, looting, smashing and burning incident"; berated when their government leaders back home have mentioned the possibility of an Olympic boycott, and pressured to make public statements of support for China's "restrained" response to the Tibetan riots. India's ambassador, Nirupama Rao, had to throw on her clothes, find an embassy driver and trundle over to the Foreign Ministry at 2 o'clock one morning to hear Chinese security concerns after Tibetan protesters breached the wall at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi. (Chinese officials insisted Rao was treated "very respectably.") At one point Arab League ambassadors were summoned and asked to endorse the Tibet crackdown "as our friends in Sudan have done." "Now we see the behavior of China as a superpower," says one ambassador who'd been called in a handful of times in as many days. "We see there's a price to be paid for those who signed all those big Chinese contracts or accepted Beijing's economic aid."
Some of this is plain clumsiness. But the regime also knows that acting tough helps it with young Chinese, whose passions are unpredictable. The information available to most members of this generation has been severely limited by censorship and sophisticated cyberpolicing. They know little about the Dalai Lama, who fled Lhasa in 1959 after the failed revolt—and thus fully believe Beijing's longtime portrayal of him as a nefarious "splittist." "A lot of Chinese don't understand why people in the West are critical of China," says Rebecca MacKinnon, a Hong Kong-based expert on China's Internet culture. "They think, 'Why are Tibetans being so ungrateful?' " When it comes to any issue involving Chinese territory, this generation of Chinese pushes the government to stand up to foreign powers and activists, to defend the country's honor.
China's reaction to the unrest has also tapped into an ugly strain of racism. To many Han Chinese, who have seen their prospects improve immeasurably over the past 30 years, disgruntled minorities like the Tibetans seem like backward malcontents. A Tibetan woman who sells traditional earrings and trinkets in a Beijing subway station says no one buys her jewelry any longer because no Han "wants to be mistaken for a Tibetan ... No one wants to be seen [even] speaking with Tibetans." She says Chinese commuters have cursed her every day since the protests turned bloody. She and her friends didn't dare venture outdoors for several days after March 14. "We heard [Chinese] were throwing stones and beer bottles at our women and trying to beat our children," says the vendor, who requested anonymity because she lives in Beijing illegally.
There are signs that at least some Chinese officials recognize that the regime is painting itself into a corner with its behavior. Domestic media have begun to devote more emphasis to the message that both Tibetans and Chinese suffered from the Lhasa riots, instead of focusing exclusively on Han Chinese victims. Minders who brought a group of foreign diplomats to Lhasa at the end of March emphasized the same theme. "China … should spend less time demonizing their political enemies and more time telling positive stories about how they're going to address problems in the country, how they're going to help the victims of the rioting in Tibet regardless of their ethnicity," says the Beijing-based PR consultant. "The price of globalization … [is] finding a way to balance internal and external audiences." If China wants to show it's ready to graduate, that's a lesson the regime needs to learn, fast.