Warsaw Business Journal March 31, 2008

Tibet is an opportunity for China

by Johan Puotila

While in Beijing recently, I had the chance to observe the progress that the 2008 Olympic host nation has made not only with its economy but also in terms of openness and transparency.

Although it wasn't front-page news, Chinese media reported on small groups of unprovoked hooligans having roamed the streets of Lhasa, destroying property and beating innocent bystanders, including women and children. The Dalai Lama was referred to as a terrorist ring leader and the mastermind behind the attacks. Police had restored peace but a few army units had, however, been sent to Tibet to help clean the streets from debris, following the rampage of troublemakers inspired by the Dalai Lama.

According to Chinese media, the people of Tibet and their religious leaders had unanimously condemned the riots. No international reactions, protests or concerns were mentioned, except in support of China's commendable handling of the situation. Government spokespeople explained that China had nothing to hide.

Then again, the hotel TV's CNN channel went blank every time there was a news report on the subject. Those with internet connections that could access Western news sites learned that all journalists and tourists had been denied access to Tibet. The Beijing-Lhasa train connection was cut. The worst rumors circulating among those in Beijing who had sources in Tibet referred to an ongoing "yellow genocide."

In Poland, voices have been raised in support of protests and boycotts in conjunction with the 2008 Olympic Games, due to the recent events in Tibet and China's handling of the native population of this country, which it has occupied since 1951.

However, since Steven Spielberg's resignation as artistic advisor to the games, representatives of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and China have repeatedly reminded people that sports and politics should be kept separate. The world should concentrate on sports; politics should be left to politicians and arenas other than the Olympic Games.

When China campaigned to host the 2008 Olympic Games, it promised progress in the area of human rights. While the IOC assessed the political structures of applicant countries as a part of the host selection process, there was an exception for China's bid - there was no third party assessment. This shows that an element of politics was injected into the 2008 Olympic Games at an early stage, during the bidding and selection process.

The choice of Beijing as the 2008 Olympic host ahead of Toronto, Paris, Istanbul and Osaka in 2001 represented another political decision, even if purely commercial considerations also played an important role. It is hard to believe that China - where political or religious dissent leads to arrest and imprisonment, severe air pollution is a substantial concern to athletes and visitors alike, traffic hits a standstill even under normal circumstances and where taxi drivers need the destination written in Chinese to take you even to the biggest international hotels - was chosen based on athletic considerations, infrastructure and favorable environment only.

The IOC therefore has limited credibility when voicing its conviction that sports and politics should be kept apart at any cost.

There is no reason why the 2008 games still could not be a major success for the organizers and participants alike. As always, though, this is very much up to the host nation. It is simply too much to ask that anything should go in the name of sports and the Olympic spirit. People cannot be asked to close their eyes and ears or to ignore their conscience. Media and politicians cannot be expected to remain silent about the issues surrounding these events.

China must realize that in today's world, information cannot be controlled or suppressed in perpetuity and that a vacuum will always get filled with rumors and speculation if nothing else.

Tibet provides China with an historic opportunity to demonstrate that it is becoming a world power, not only in terms of economic progress, but also in basic moral and ethical principles and human rights. The solution is in dialogue, not in brute force and the suppression of information.