China’s Tall Claim
Taking Olympic torch up Everest is a poor publicity stunt
The Times of India, May 2, 2008
As a triumphal symbol of its rule over Tibet, China is taking the Olympic torch through the “Roof of the World” to Mt Everest, which straddles the Tibetan-Nepalese border. That publicity stunt will only infuse more politics into the Games, already besmirched by the manner China’s pressure helped turn the just-concluded international torch relay into a stage-managed, security exercise everywhere to pander to its sense of self-esteem at the cost of the Olympic spirit of openness.
Taking the torch to the tallest mountain is Beijing’s way of reinforcing its tall claim on Tibet. The blunt fact is that the only occasions in history when Tibet was clearly part of China was under non-Han dynasties — that is, when China itself had been conquered by outsiders: the Mongol Yuan dynasty, from 1279 to 1368, and the Manchu Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. What Beijing today asserts are regions “integral” to its territorial integrity are really imperial spoils of earlier foreign dynastic rule in China. Yet revisionist history under communist rule has helped indoctrinate Chinese to think of the Yang and Qing empires as Han. When a dynasty was indeed ethnically Han, such as Ming (founded between the Yang and Qing empires), Tibet had scant connection to Chinese rulers.
Today, to prevent any demonstrators sneaking in from the Nepalese side and spoiling its triumphalism atop the 8,848-metre Everest, China has pressured a politically adrift Nepal to police entry routes to the peak and deploy troops up to the 6,500-metre Camp II. Having eliminated the outer buffer with India by annexing Tibet, China is now set to expand its leverage over the inner buffer, Nepal, where the Maoists will lead the next government following elections marred by large-scale intimidation.
Beijing’s plan to take the torch to Tibet is nothing but provocative. After all, the Chinese crackdown in Tibet continues, Tibetan monasteries remain sealed off, hundreds of monks and nuns are in jail, and the vast plateau is still closed to foreigners.
In fact, China specially constructed a 108-kilometre blacktop road to Everest to take the torch to the summit, unmindful of the environmental impact of such activities in pristine areas. China’s large hydro projects in Tibet — the source of all of Asia’s major rivers except the Ganges — and its reckless exploitation of the plateau’s vast mineral resources already threaten the region’s fragile ecosystem, with Chinese officials admitting average temperatures are rising faster in Tibet than in rest of China.
Yet such is the Olympics’ politicization that Beijing has extended the torch relay in Tibet into June. After ascending Everest in the coming days, the torch is to travel to Lhasa on June 19.
The torch’s three-month route within China, as compared to just a five-week run through the rest of the world, shows that for the Chinese Communist Party, the Olympics are an occasion not only to showcase national achievements under its rule, but also to help win popular legitimacy for its political monopoly. To some extent, the Olympics have always been political, with politics more about national power and pride. But until this year, politics had not cast such a big shadow since the Soviet-bloc nations boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in reprisal to the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.
As if the relay becoming the most divisive in history is not enough, China is stoking more controversy through the torch’s Everest climb and Tibet run. Yet, while continuing brutal repression in Tibet, it has made the Olympics’ success such a prestige issue that it has offered to meet the Dalai Lama’s “private representative”.
Blending hardline actions with ostensible concessions has been Chinese strategy for long. Even as it was readying to invade India in 1962, China was suggesting conciliation. Today, while stepping up cross-border incursions and encouraging India-bashing by its official organs, with a recent China Institute of International Strategic Studies commentary saying an “arrogant India” wants to be taught another 1962-style lesson, Beijing offers more meaningless talks with New Delhi.
Clearly, China has appropriated the Olympic torch for its own political agenda. It never tires from lecturing to the world not to interfere in its internal affairs. Still, during the international relay, it kept interfering in the affairs of other states, wanting to be kept in the loop on the local security arrangements and insisting that pro-Tibet demonstrations not be allowed. It even helped script some counter-demonstrations by young Chinese along the international route.
Now a pressured Nepal has been forced to restrict expeditions to Everest in the busiest mountaineering season and station soldiers with authority to open fire as “a last resort”. All this is to ensure that not a single protester or Tibetan flag greets the torch on Everest.
All autocrats tend to do things that ultimately boomerang. Who would have thought two months ago that Tibet would come to the centre of world attention? A relay carrying the theme, “Journey of Harmony”, has helped bring host China under international scrutiny. The autocracy’s troubles indeed may only be beginning. This year could prove a watershed. Just as the 1936 Berlin Olympics set the stage for Nazi Germany’s collapse, the Beijing Games could end up as a spur to radical change in China.
Those who see Tibet as a lost cause forget that history has a way of wreaking vengeance on artificially created empires.
The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.
© Times of India, 2008.