Thugs Around the Torch

In what may be the first honest expression of the Communist Chinese government’s "Olympic Spirit," the Olympic Torch Relay last week in London degenerated into a melee and near riot. In the British capital, thuggish Chinese security men brusquely ordered around athletes, manhandled pro-Tibet Protesters and became engaged in scuffles with London Police.

Just a taste of what it is like in China in the shadow of the Olympics.

Awarding the Olympics was a triumph of hope over experience; hope that this opening to the world would somehow promote a liberalization of the regime, even while the Chinese  government made clear from the outset that it wanted to promote the idea of its emergence as a global power without changing anything about its totalitarian nature.

And – while the IOC turns a blind eye to things such as the Chinese slaughter of Tibetan protesters – China has upped the ante by protesting the protesters in Europe. The Olympic Games, unfortunately, are particularly congenial to dictators: a one-world spirit of athletic brotherhood across the globe; a focus on youth; and the kind of mass display that would win North Korea the Gold.

In a way reminiscent of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Beijing Games are being used to overawe the watchers, a Potemkin showcase to the world. Behind the scenes, a cadre of leaders with an adamantine will to power and wealth cracks down on anything that belies the picture of a happy and orderly people in a newly powerful China.

State financing of the Games would probably have made them political in any event, but since the modern Olympiad was established, it has become a pretense for murderous regimes to play to the press. In democratic countries like Japan in 1964 or South Korea in 1992, they have been an expression of openness and modernity; in countries like Germany in 1936 or in China in 2008, totalitarian regimes use the Games for the great sport of propaganda.  The Games’ website is positively Orwellian; its theme is "One World, One Dream."  

For the Chinese, it is only their world, and their dream that will matter. And the nightmare that is their oppression of their own citizens and others, such as Tibetans, is part of their “ideal.”

China’s police state ethos spilled out into the streets of London as the Olympic Torch Relay was "protected" from pro-Tibet demonstrators by blue-track-suited Chinese security guards while Bobbies trotted alongside. According to British television personality (and athlete) Konnie Huq, "The men in blue perplexed everyone . . . . They were . . . very full on, and I noticed them having skirmishes with our own police and the Olympic authorities . . . which was confusing. They were barking orders at me, like ‘Run! Stop!’"  

Now, it should be noted that the protesters, some of whom may have been of the professional, "usual insect" variety, in some instances engaged in aggressive behavior that should have been stopped — by the Metropolitan Police. But the Chinese guards, apparently without the authorization of any British authorities, fought back.

Chinese media have reported that the "Flame Protection Squad" or "Wujing" was established by the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee last year to safeguard the Flame 24 hours a day on its 85,130-mile relay. Its members come from the People’s Armed Police, the security force responsible for riot control and domestic stability and who with grotesque irony have been deployed in Tibet to put down the recent unrest.

When they bid for the Games, the Chinese promised to improve their human rights record. But communists never change. Wishing to show off an apparently peaceful and orderly country, the government has turned the screws on political dissidents, internet use, non-governmental organizations, and ethnic minorities. It has swept beggars off the streets and jailed critics of the Games, including prominent democracy activist Hu Jia.

And what can we expect during the Games? Probably more of the same ugly panoply of oppression and control. Not the same thing but the same kind of thing: a heavy hand to prevent demonstrations and otherwise ensure the appearance of calm and order.

These sinister overtones will leave the West in a morally and politically precarious position come summer. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to have it both ways, appearing at 10 Downing Street surrounded by the insolently prancing Wujing, but pointedly refusing to actually handle the Torch. The upcoming London Olympics means that Britain cannot boycott Beijing, but the PM announced that he will not attend the Opening Ceremonies.

Gordon Brown’s equivocation is an apt metaphor for a Western World that lost the plot on China. And now, if there is a boycott of this most prestigious of national projects that cause the ultimate loss of "face," how will the Chinese government react? If it’s viewed against a backdrop of the usual Western fecklessness will they feel free, for example, to move on Taiwan?

 All the five year plans, the "Great Leap Forward," the "Four Modernizations" and such were tried and found wanting. To help maintain their personal status, the cynical leaders of the People’s Republic have adopted the bread and circuses of a rapacious capitalism and now the Olympic Games.

These Olympics are just part and parcel. Part and parcel of a regime that oppresses its own people while at the same time escalating its offensive military capacity and its belligerent tone and behavior on the world stage.

Gold medals, then, for the West. For ignorance. For naiveté. And for the usual wishful thinking. Nothing new there, nor will there be in the 21st Century’s first totalitarian Olympics.