Giant on the move
Watching human rites
In the end they came of course. Remember all that talk about leaders boycotting the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games over China’s ties with the government of Sudan or its crackdown on Tibetan rioters?
Well, when the lavish ceremony got underway in the Bird’s Nest stadium on Friday night, some 80 leaders and royals were watching, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy who had threatened not to turn up.
The extravaganza muffled the voices of China’s critics. Three Americans staged a protest outside the stadium about an hour before it got underway, draping themselves in a Tibetan flag, but they were quickly bundled away by security forces and forgotten. Human Rights Watch put out a statement slamming China for its commercial and diplomatic ties to Myanmar’s junta on the 20th anniversary of the 8-8-88 democracy uprising that was crushed, drawing parallels with the 8-8-2008 date chosen by Beijing for the opening of the Games, but it was barely mentioned in international media reports.
There will undoubtedly be more protests and more slamming of China by rights groups between now and the closing ceremony, but the world’s attention has switched to sport.
Some foreign leaders — many of them under pressure back home to press China on its human rights record — will bring the issue up with their hosts. U.S. President George W. Bush fired a broadside just hours before he landed in Beijing, and Sarkozy handed two lists of jailed dissidents to China’s president and premier. But no one seriously expects it to change Beijing’s policies.
Andrew Small, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), argues in the institution’s blog that there have been few concessions from China on many of the rights issues that the West has harped on in the past year.
“The mystery is why we thought it would be otherwise,” he writes. “While the Chinese government still hears the same 1990s language coursing around western politicians’ speeches, it knows that human rights — at home or abroad — don’t make the A-list of the agenda any more in its dealings with the major powers.”
Small argues that the economic stakes are too high for the United State to risk its relationship with China and there are other issues of more importance such as keeping Beijing on side in the North Korean nuclear talks and the squeeze on Iran over its nuclear programme, and then of course there is the diplomatic balancing act over Taiwan.
“Burma, Sudan, and Tibet sometimes make the upper end of a B-list but that is not where the real political capital is being spent.”