The brutal crackdown by Chinese authorities against Tibetan independence protesters ahead of the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing August 8 carries with it a terrible echo from the past. Scores of protesters are reported dead in the capital city of Lhasa and more repression has been promised. Tibet’s China-appointed Governor Champa Phuntsok said, “No country would allow those offenders or criminals to escape the arm of justice and China is no exception.” A Tibetan exile group said Monday that Chinese troops were shooting down protesters “like dogs.”
Even after decades of occupation, the ruthlessness of the crackdown has shocked much of the world. It happens the week after the US State Department removed China from its list of the world’s worst human rights offenders.
Yet the concern expressed by world leaders has seemed less for the people of Tibet than the fate of the Summer Games, with Olympic cash deemed more precious than Tibetan blood. The Olympics were supposed to be China’s multibillion-dollar, super sweet sixteen. Britain’s Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, Mark Malloch-Brown told the BBC, “This is China’s coming-out party, and they should take great care to do nothing that will wreck that.”
Other countries hankering after a piece of China’s thriving economy have rushed to put daylight between the crackdown in Tibet from the Olympics. The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement saying that “attempts at politicizing the holding of the 2008 Olympic Games in China are unacceptable.”
While the European Union, Russia, the Unted States and Australia have ruled out the idea of boycotting the games, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Tuesday that the EU should at least consider boycotting the opening ceremony if violence continues.
Whatever happens next, China’s crackdown in Tibet is not happening in spite of the Beijing Olympics, but because of them. It is a bold play by China to set a tone for the remainder of the year. Since its occupation of the country in 1951, China has suppressed its Buddhist faith, despoiled the environment and made Tibetans a persecuted minority in their own country via the mass migration of millions of Han Chinese. As monks and young Tibetans took their grievances to the streets over the weekend, the government made clear it would brook no protest and tolerate no dissent.
But it’s helpful to remember that in many countries, including our own, pre-Olympic repression is as much of a tradition as lighting the torch.
In 1984, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates oversaw the jailing of thousands of young black men in the infamous Olympic Gang Sweeps. The 1996 Atlanta games were supposed to demonstrate the gains of the New South, but the New South ended up looking much like the old one, as public housing was razed to make way for the construction of Olympic venues, homeless people were chased off the streets and perceived trouble-makers were arrested.
As Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project recently recalled in Vancouver, BC, another city poised to crack down on crime, drugs and homelessness in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 2010, Atlanta officials “had six ordinances that made all kinds of things illegal, including lying down. Lots of people were shipped out, and lots of people were put in jail. [The Olympic Planning Committee] actually built the city jail. Activists there called it the first Olympic project completed on time.”
But the worst example of Olympic repression–and the most similar to the current moment–came in 1968 in Mexico City, where hundreds of Mexican students and workers occupying the National University were slaughtered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2, 1968, ten days before the start of the games. Recently declassified documents paint a picture of a massacre as cold and methodical as President Luis Echeverría’s instructions.
Echeverría’s aim was the same as China’s: a pre-emptive strike to make sure that using the Olympic games as a platform for protest would not be on the itinerary. The irony, of course, is that while Echeverría succeeded in crushing the protest movement outside the games, on the inside US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in an expression of Black Power, cementing the 1968 games as a place defined by discontent. It’s a lesson the 2008 athletes might remember. Officials may try to smother dissent on the streets of Lhasa and elsewhere in China, but in the games themselves–from the path of the Olympic torch up Mount Everest to the opulent venues constructed in Beijing–the risk for protest, and the opportunity, is real.