Robocops should rest

Nothing that Prometheus stole from Zeus, no ancient Greek tradition, nor modern practice decrees that the Olympic torch has to pass through 19 countries before the opening ceremony in Beijing on August 8.

Like most heraldry, the global tour of the torch is a modern invention, stretching back no further in the mists of time than the last Games in Athens. After London, Paris and San Francisco, prising the torch from the phalanx of the Chinese robocops protecting it has become the latest Olympic sport.

Little surprise that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown confirmed this week that he would not be attending the opening ceremony.

Viewed from China the fraught progress of the torch is rapidly taking on the appearance of a well-laid international ambush. The Chinese government had originally dubbed the tour of the torch ”the journey of harmony”, a slogan that spoke at least as much of China’s view of its rising global profile as it did of the Olympic ideal itself.

The Games were supposed to be China’s graduation party, final confirmation of its arrival at the top table of world powers. Tibet was merely a pretext, the Chinese nationalist blogosphere argues. The real motive behind ruining China’s party was that the West was never comfortable awarding China that amount of authority in the first place. Like most conspiracy theories it is too neat. But Tibet underlies just how wide the political gap remains between China and the West, two partners who have no difficulty singing in harmony from the same capitalist hymn sheet.

In a chat show on state television recently a Chinese Tibet expert asked how Britain would behave if Wales declared independence. There is no concept in Beijing that the Tibetan uprising that has just taken place — probably the most serious and widespread since 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled to India — is about human rights and not separatism. To admit that Tibet is a human rights issue is not to reduce the history of relations between the Han Chinese and Tibetans to those between conquerors and their vassals.

The Han expanded their empire by being conquered by the Mongolians and the Manchurians in the 13th and 17th centuries. Tibetans in exile claim that Tibet became a colony of China in the 17th century Qing Dynasty, if not before that, and when that collapsed they regained their independence.

The Chinese, on the other hand, regard the Mongolian and Manchurian invasions as successive dynasties both of which moved their capitals to Beijing. The resulting ethnicities in modern-day China — the Han, Mongolians, Tibetans, Uighurs and Manchurians, are thus all part of the same family or ”five fingers on the same hand”. These two views of history are mutually exclusive. Both pose existential threats either to Tibet or to the modern state of China, and the argument is without end.

What China’s current rulers should concentrate on instead is the quality of relations between the state and its various ethnic groups. Currently these are governed by a military clampdown in five provinces. Each time the government arranges a press trip to counter international criticism, a group of monks, their heads covered to evade identification, bursts forth to confirm everyone’s worst suspicions. ”We are not asking for Tibetan independence, we are just asking for human rights, we have no human rights now,” one monk said in Chinese.

Voices like these should be listened to by any Chinese official interested in maintaining the unity of the state.

In the meantime, the 30 officers of the ”Holy Flame Protection Unit” should be withdrawn, and the torch be given a rest until the games begin. Insistence that it is paraded through Tibet will only go down as a further act of cultural imperialism. — Â

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