Let the world go to China with eyes wide open

The sputtering Olympic torch seems to be leaving quite a trail of soot on its way to Beijing. But by far the largest smudge will be deposited on the host country, whose Politburo will one day rue its decision to draw the world's attention by hosting the Games. Meanwhile I applaud recent protesters' recognition that China is a grotesque tyranny and we really should say something. But I think they besmirched themselves by violently disrupting the progress of the torch through France.

I ask you: Is the government of France legitimate? By which I mean not "Is everything it does sublimely wise and just?" but "Does it follow the rule of law, conduct fair elections and enjoy broad popular acceptance?" Since the answer is obviously yes, by what right do people with a grievance against a particular policy of that government, even a justified grievance, take the law into their own hands? The appropriate remedy in a democracy is to give a speech, cast a vote or seek an injunction, not punch a cop.

These torch-snuffing antics were not based on populism, for the protesters' supposed mandate rested on the strength not of their numbers but of their moral indignation. Yet they are not anarchists, who would let everyone do their own thing. Instead they seek to impose their own preferences by force, albeit feebly.

It is also pitiful because of the play-acting component. It is one thing to scream abuse and shove French, British or American police; quite another to take effective action against China in Tibet, Africa or the straits of Taiwan. As Henry Kissinger just wrote, Europeans seem increasingly unwilling to take military action in defence of their security. I detect an element of bad conscience in substituting street theatre within the safe boundaries of democratic states.

I wasn't even impressed when the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, met the Dalai Lama then said, "If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against Chinese oppression in China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world." Her whole plan is to talk now so she can talk later. But it is the geopolitics of the windbag to reverse Theodore Roosevelt's "Speak softly and carry a big stick," and it is neither practical nor dignified.

What do the protesters hope to accomplish? If it is to address the Chinese people, they will largely fail because the Chinese government has tight control over the flow of information. If it is to influence their own governments they have a better chance, especially after provoking the revelation that the torch is being protected by some pretty sinister agents of the Chinese government. But the democratic right to protest peacefully does not include the right to protest non-peacefully, and violence just brings your cause into disrepute.

Which is a pity since it is disgraceful to see democratic governments assisting the procession of the torch via bleeding Tibet to Beijing as if it were some glorious tribute to the higher aspirations of mankind. The Chinese government has no acquaintance with those aspirations and, if it did, would have no sympathy for them.

It is disingenuous, or worse, for the International Olympic Committee to deplore politicization of the Games while simultaneously calling the torch relay "a symbol of international peace and friendship" (as Richard Pound did in this newspaper yesterday). Yet the IOC may accidentally have accomplished something useful, by drawing the eyes of the world to the harm being done by this year's hosts to human dignity, environmental quality and international harmony.

Especially given the tragicomic prose with which that regime now attempts to defend itself. The self-imposed isolation of tyrannies is a source of great weakness, and when they emerge from the fishbowl, they tend to flop around in a revealingly inept way. Hence a Beijing Olympic Committee member dismissed the London and Paris protesters as a "handful of Tibetan separatists" and the Chinese premier fulminated against the "Dalai clique" and its "hidden agenda." They've been talking to co-conspirators, flunkies and useful idiots so long they've lost all perspective on themselves. The resulting performance is one the free world should see.

Thus I oppose a boycott of the Games. Let the world go to Beijing but with its eyes as wide open as the smog permits. Let journalists ask tough questions and report frankly on what they see. Let spectators speak bluntly to their hosts, and athletes puncture totalitarian pretensions.

If the sputtering torch dumps a sufficiently public heap of soot on the Communist tyrants in China it will have done some good after all.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]