Local Olympic Torch Protest Follow-Up

Well, I did indeed get to come to work today and find out how the planned pro-Tibet vigil and pro-China counter-protest turned out last night. Both the campus paper and the local paper reported on it. The basic description from the campus paper:

Crowds of upset protesters flooded the Chapel Quadrangle Wednesday evening, interrupting a planned candlelight vigil supporting freedom in Tibet.

Members and supporters of the Duke Human Rights Coalition, led by juniors Daniel Cordero and Adam Weiss, marched from East Campus to West Campus, Tibetan flags in hand, to advocate for the region’s freedom from the People’s Republic of China.

In response, protesters bearing signs and Chinese flags filled the Chapel Quad, expressing patriotism and criticizing Western media through chants and song.

When the pro-Tibet faction arrived outside the Chapel, protesters swarmed them en masse with chanting and shouting.

The pro-China students had recruited compatriots from the two other large universities nearby and had them carpool over. Fortunately, yelling really loudly and in large numbers was as far as things went.

A bit more from the local paper, highlighting the frustrations of the Chinese students:

The face-off was heavily policed and did not devolve into violence.

But the hundreds of Chinese students who showed up for the confrontation reflect the frustration many have felt about how their country has been criticized or portrayed in the media. In the past two months, Chinese students from Germany to Canada to North Carolina have inundated Internet bulletin board services, shared YouTube videos or contributed to Web sites such as anti-cnn.com, a collection of errors Western media outlets have made in coverage of Tibet.

The students say that human rights protesters have ignored that Tibetan mobs turned violent, looting stores, burning buildings and killing civilians in the riots that roiled Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, on March 14.

Hainian Zeng, 25, a botany doctoral student at N.C. State University, said that’s why he feels he must speak up.

” ‘Free Tibet’ — to them it’s just a slogan,” Zeng said. “They have no idea about the past and current situation in Tibet.”

[…]

Zeng, who came to Raleigh from Shanghai two years ago, said he doesn’t want to escalate conflict between any ethnic groups. But he can’t sit back and do nothing.

“We just want to try to give people a different point of view,” he said.

I’ve been having some interesting discussions about these conflicting viewpoints with my coworkers. The Chinese student listserv has apparently declared the counter-protest last night a “great victory” because it essentially drowned the Tibet group. But this seems to underline how the two groups are not at all arguing over the same issue. The pro-Tibet groups want to bring world attention to human rights abuses. The pro-China groups want to redirect attention to the Olympics and Chinese economic accomplishments, not necessarily because they are trying to cover things up, but because some of them well and truly believe that the Chinese state did the right thing to liberate the Tibetans from a backwards and poor existence under a ridiculously superstitious theocracy. It all begins to sound very much like arguments over colonialism.

I do think it is true that many Western protesters, such as some of the more irritatingly idealistic college students quoted in the articles linked above, do not have a particularly good understanding of the history of tensions in the region. Of course, China does nothing to help Western understanding by denying media access to the region in question and demanding that only their state-approved propaganda version of events be seen as the only true version of the news. It is true that frustrated native Tibetans burned newer ethnic Chinese shops in mid-March. But it’s also true that the government has been encouraging large groups of ethnic Chinese to move into Western regions of the country that have been dominated by minorities in order to “dilute” them, with little regard for how this will disrupt the local community and economy.

It was a fitting day to read the latest “Washington Diary” from the BBC reporter stationed here, in which he reflects on these same issues. This bit seemed particularly apt:

Whenever a city gets the Olympics, there are scenes of jubilation. London went wild for a night when it got the Games in 2005. In Sydney, I witnessed the sporting pride of a nation in love with the outdoors. Australia was keen to use the spotlight to introduce the world to the land “down under”.

But the Beijing Olympics were never just about the pride of a city or the sporting prowess of Chinese athletes, or indeed the tourist board’s desire to introduce the globe to Dim Sum, Sichuan folk dresses and the Terracotta Army.

For China, the Games are a coming-out party for an emerging super-power, a chance to prove to the world that it deserves to be respected, that it has finally shaken off the yoke of Communist isolation or colonial occupation.

The Games will put a human face to all those economic statistics that the world has marvelled at for so many years. In Beijing, the Olympics will not just be a sporting event. They will be a national celebration.

Compare it to the perfect wedding of an arranged marriage. It is less about the love between bride and groom and more about the canapes, the placement and the 600 carefully chosen family guests. Last minute objections are a definite no-no.

The claim that this is just another international sporting event simply does not wash. The Chinese themselves do not see it that way. The Olympics have always been prone to political meddling. They are after all a competition between nation states and not individual sportsmen and women.

It seems quite obvious that giving the Olympics to Beijing was a very poor decision. But it’s certainly irreversible now, so we’ll certainly be living in, ahem, interesting times for the next several months.

-posted by Dana

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3 Responses to Local Olympic Torch Protest Follow-Up

  1. kidsilkhaze says:

    OK, but, here’s the deal. I’m not entirely sure why giving Beijing the Olympics was bad. Because China isn’t the greatest place? Neither was Nazi Berlin or Communist Moscow, and they both got the Olympics. Is the scandal and bribery-ridden Olympic committee supposed to do better this time around?

    Why is it “bad” besides the fact that China has massive human rights issues, which has never been an issue with giving out the Olympics before? If anything, it has really brought China into the debate. I mean, I’ve heard multiple pieces on Uighur issues in the past few weeks. I’ve NEVER heard a mainstream media piece about the Uighurs before.

  2. Dana says:

    I’m equally astounded that the Olympics happened in Nazi Germany. Of course, the IOC doesn’t really have any guarantee that the place they pick to host the Games is going to have the perfect political climate, especially since they pick places so far in advance. But in this case, there appears to be this overwhelming impression that the IOC picked Beijing with the understanding that China would somehow clean up all of its human rights issues to meet Western standards, and now everyone is shocked that didn’t happen.

    I guess what irritates me about all of this is the amount of shock, I tell you, SHOCK that everything about this is now so controversial. Whether it’s from Western figures scolding China for not doing exactly what the West wants, or from Chinese officials being offended that people are daring to bring politics into the mix, it all just brings to mind the response of, “Yes? What did you expect?”

    It will be great if the Chinese government is brought into larger realistic debates about its policies. I just find it difficult to believe they never thought that it would come up. I’m finding the whole thing very interesting, in any case.

  3. […] right now. It turns out there was a lot more fallout from the local NC protest/counter-protest I mentioned last week. A Chinese undergraduate somehow ended up between the two groups, apparently trying to get them to […]

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