As the Olympic torch touches down in Australia, it is hard to see how any good can come of the entire exercise.
After Kevin Rudd’s visit to Beijing, which seemed to herald a newly mature relationship between Australia and China, we’ve spent a week or more embroiled in a petty squabble, of a kind which is all too familiar in international relations, over the role of Chinese torch attendants/security guards, with the Australian government insisting that all security will be provided by our police and the Chinese saying that the attendants will “protect the torch with their bodies”.
George Orwell observed over 60 years ago that
Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.
and history since then has given plenty of examples. It looks as if the 2008 Olympics will join them.
Until relatively recently, it looked as if the Games might produce some net positives, making it harder for the Chinese government to suppress dissent and pushing them in the direction of democratic reform. In this context, protests against the torch relay might be seen as increasing the pressure.
In fact, however, the protests have focused entirely on the national claims of Tibet (as represented by the government in exile of the Dalai Lama) and have produced an unsurprising nationalist reaction in China (effectively in support of the existing government). The result, almost certainly, is that the position of supporters of democracy will be worse than ever, with any criticism of the Chinese authorities being viewed as support for external attacks on China’s territorial integrity.
As far as Tibet is concerned, all this is likely to prove counterproductive. A democratic Chinese government would almost certainly come around to the viewpoint that territorial control over Tibet is an expensive indulgence, in terms of both economic cost and international standing, while a democratic and independent Tibet would have little choice but to pursue close economic and political ties with China. But as long as China remains in its current political stasis, no movement on this issue is likely.
About the only good news is that the torch will be gone soon, and we in Australia will be able to forget about the Olympics for a few months.