Liu: Pulling the Olympic Torch Into Politics

Olympics fever has gripped Beijing. The Games will be the regime's coming-out party, marking China's debut as a major world player. But, already, with the event 15 months away, China's critics are trying to rain on the country's parade.

Who would have known such controversy would surround, of all things, the Olympic torch relay?  From the start, Chinese authorities wanted to mount the longest and most impressive relay route ever, including a high-altitude leg to Mount Everest in Tibet—which required the invention of a special torch that would keep on burning despite low oxygen levels—as well as Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, to show the extended reach of the Middle Kingdom. The problem(s): Tibetan activists don't want any public reinforcement of China's control over their country, and authorities on self-governing Taiwan don't want their island portrayed as part of the Chinese empire. (Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland—by force, if necessary.) Last year, the pro-independence Taipei Times taunted Beijing with an editorial titled "Take your Olympic torch and snuff it."

After Beijing and International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials unveiled the Olympic torch itinerary at a gala ceremony Thursday night, Taiwan officials rejected the route, indicating it would "denigrate Taiwan's sovereignty." Beijing thought a compromise had been reached, in which the Olympic flame would travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Taiwan and then to the semi-autonomous Chinese enclave of Hong Kong. But Taipei had wanted to make the torch's passage "international" by having it enter and leave Taiwan via third-party countries that are not China.

Now "the Taiwan leg of the Olympic flame relay is a 'domestic route,' thereby creating the misimpression that Taiwan is a region under China's jurisdiction," said a statement from Taiwan's Olympic Committee. It called Beijing's gambit "political machinations aimed at denigrating our status in the IOC." (Taipei is still smarting from the fact that Beijing Olympics organizers are calling Taiwan's Olympic Committee "China Taipei" or "Taipei China" instead of the previously agreed "Chinese Taipei," which contains less implication that Taiwan belongs to China.)

A coincidence of timing has made the 2008 Games particularly sensitive against the backdrop of the long-running feud between Beijing and Taipei.  Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, whose political party espouses independence for Taiwan, has hinted that he might make a number of what Beijing considers separatist gestures in coming months. These would goad the Beijing regime for sure. But the mainland government has also learned the lesson of reacting belligerently—such as conducting missile-firing exercises in the Taiwan Straits—because to do so almost always plays straight into Taipei's hands, emphasizing the scary face of China to the international community and especially to the Taiwan public.

Now, with Taiwan presidential elections due in March 2008, Beijing is walking a tightrope. It's trying hard to avoid either overreaction or appeasement toward Taipei. (Chinese strategists fear the latter would give Chen the perception of having a "blank check" to make trouble in the run-up to the Games.)  If Chinese authorities play their hand skillfully, the reward could be a victory by the opposition Kuomintang Party in Taiwan's presidential elections. The KMT is more amenable to reunification with the mainland, so such a scenario would mean Beijing authorities heading into the Olympic season with more friendly counterparts in Taipei, and a potentially historic breakthrough in the cross-straits relationship.

Recently, China showed itself able to change tack under the pressure of international scrutiny over Darfur, where violence has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.  Beijing has been under fire for its close ties to the Sudanese regime, which happens to be China's sixth-largest oil supplier, and for apparently turning a blind eye to the atrocities in Darfur. Late last month Hollywood celebrity Mia Farrow called the 2008 Games the "Genocide Olympics" and called for a boycott because of China's support for Khartoum.

She also warned film mogul Steven Spielberg, who'd agreed to act as an artistic adviser on the Games, that he risked being remembered as the "Leni Riefenstahl" of the Beijing Olympics if he didn't take a more principled stand on Darfur—a reference to the German filmmaker who earned infamy by glorifying Nazi Germany's Berlin Olympics in 1936.  Within days of Farrow's comment, Spielberg had written a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao asking him to "bring an end to the human suffering" in Darfur. Shortly thereafter a special Chinese envoy flew into Khartoum to pressure the regime to allow a U.N. peacekeeping force into the troubled region—a move that Farrow called "extraordinary."  On April 16, the Sudanese government announced it would allow 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur. The two celebrities were hardly the only ones pressurizing China to use its influence on Khartoum (U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has long tried a similar tack), but the timing of Beijing's action is certainly an indicator of how the regime feels about its Olympic image.

But an about-face on Darfur is much easier than tweaking policies with domestic implications, where Chinese authorities are jittery about appearing too soft. Taiwan is one of those issues; another is Tibet.

On Wednesday, Chinese authorities detained four Tibetan independence activists, all U.S. citizens, at the base camp of Mount Everest. They were protesting Tibet's inclusion in the Olympic torch relay. Within hours, footage of the high-altitude protest appeared on YouTube. For China "the Olympics are a golden opportunity to whitewash their human-rights record," says Lhadon Tethong of the Students for a Free Tibet which organized the demonstration and promises "a wave of protests" heading into 2008.  Meanwhile, on April 30, Amnesty International plans to release a statement saying that, despite some welcome reforms, Beijing seems to have increased its repression of human-rights activism and domestic media in the run-up to the Olympics. Even as it heads into the final stretch of its frenetic preparations for the 2008 Olympics, Chinese authorities have their hands full with international critics who are gearing up their own Olympic agendas.