"The journey of harmony" isn't living up to its name.
That's what organizers of the Olympic Games dubbed the tour of the Olympic torch before realizing that the flame would have to be secreted away during its ceremonial meanderings. It was extinguished at least once in Paris as pro-Tibet protesters besieged it, and in San Francisco it popped up unannounced in unexpected places lest demonstrators create an unseemly ruckus.
If they have a sense of humor, the gods of public relations must be smiling. China celebrated landing the 2008 Summer Olympics as a global PR coup that would seal its status as an internationally respectable power of the first rank. Instead, China is reaping the embarrassment that comes with cracking skulls in Tibet and abetting genocide in Sudan as the world's eyes turn to it as the host of an event devoted "to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."
The International Olympic Committee shouldn't hold the games in countries with closed political systems. There were four perfectly acceptable alternative cities to Beijing -- Paris, Toronto, Istanbul and Osaka -- that wouldn't have meant holding the games in a country where dissidents would be rounded up and jailed prior to the commencement of the high-jumping and synchronized swimming.
If the games weren't a de facto seal of approval, thugs wouldn't pant over hosting them. Hitler worked to keep the 1936 Olympic Games -- awarded to Berlin in 1931 prior to his rise to power -- in Germany. For good reason: historian William Shirer says that turned them into a dazzling propaganda success for his barbarian regime." In its eagerness to keep the Summer Games in Seoul in 1988, the then-authoritarian state of South Korea didn't crush protesters, thus arguably paving the way for its eventual political opening.
China won't be so gingerly, but to the extent the games become the occasion for embarrassment for Beijing rather than glorious self-congratulation, the better. The torch should be harried, and Western leaders should stay away from the opening ceremonies.
All of this is mere symbolism, of course. For China, though, it's the ceremony and the pretty picture that matter most. When Chinese President Hu Jintao met with President Bush at the White House in 2006, the substance of their talks was less important than a Falun Gong protester interrupting their press conference.
President Bush hasn't declared himself about the opening ceremony, understandably. If he says he won't go now, he'll lose any leverage over the Chinese. But ultimately he can't go, unless he wants to repeat his father's experience of rubbing shoulders with Chinese officialdom fresh from a crackdown. Bush has talked about religious freedom more than any other American president. In the past, he hasn't hesitated to irk China, meeting with the Dalai Lama in the White House.
We're warned that a boycott of the opening ceremonies would inflame Chinese nationalism. But China is a rising power beginning to flex its muscles; its nationalism gets exercised by nearly anything. We can't be held hostage to the perpetual inflammation of people whose nationalism entails stamping out the independence and culture of another country.
It is the misfortune of Beijing that it has lost the cachet it once had on the left. The country is associated less with Mao's Little Red Book than with capitalist development and rampant pollution, making it an acceptable target for moral censure. It helps that Tibet's most famous representative is a Buddhist monk and that the autonomy of a landlocked Central Asian region at 16,000 feet is a cause safely sequestered from any hint of the American national interest.
Tibet will surely get more restive rather than less as the August games approach. They are simply too good a platform for international attention (the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests began upon a high-profile visit by Mikhail Gorbachev). China will respond brutishly and hope its Olympic stage-management still comes off without a hitch.