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July 2, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright July 2, 2008. Used by permission.


One of the most important issues for the upcoming Beijing Olympics is whether activists will attempt to carry out public protests and demonstrations, and how the Chinese authorities will react if they do. Some Western journalists believe that there will be protest attempts, and if the Chinese reaction is to immediately send in the security forces, this will dominate the front-page coverage of the Games. One journalist acquaintance observed that if this should happen, it is likely that a photo of a policeman manhandling a protester will become the graphic emblem of the Games for years to come, carrying on the tradition of the photo of the student in front of the tank in 1989.

Many non-Chinese have been wondering if the Chinese authorities were so naïve about the outside world that it did not occur to them that there would be protests during the international torch relay, and are wondering if government leaders really think they can prevent protests by foreigners by screening visa applications, stopping likely activists at the border, or sending home Westerners who seem inclined to protest. Although I have no inside information, my impression is that the answer to the first question is: Yes, they really were so naïve that they had not anticipated the protests during the torch relay – this even though Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympic Games (decided in 2001) had probably been the most politically-contested bid ever. The biography of He Zhenliang, China’s senior member of the IOC, recalls that some IOC members received a hundred e-mails per day protesting Beijing’s bid and reportedly received threats of physical harm from groups promoting Tibetan freedom (Liang Lijuan, He Zhenliang and China’s Olympic Dream, 2007: 490). In 2001 Moscow police arrested 21 anti-China protesters, including a Tibetan monk, in the two days leading up to the IOC vote on the 2008 host city. Ironically, when some Beijing bid committee members tried to take a group photo behind a banner in Red Square to commemorate their success, they were accosted by police and threatened with arrest.