Olympics, Tibet and Snow

by vpundir | April 6th, 2008

I woke up pretty early for a Sunday, and looked out of my window to see a strong snowfall. That’s right! It snowed in London in April, after a relatively warm winter. The climate change surely is happening faster now (click here and check out this must watch BBC documentary).

Within an hour or so, the falling snow thinned, and the flakes became much smaller, to the extent that they became the kind that float in the air. It remained that way for an inordinately long time, as far as I was concerned. I needed to go out, but didn’t as I knew I needed to take many pictures and if any of the floating flakes landed on my camera’s lens, they’d spoil the photos.

By the time I reached Westminster, the torch had already left Trafalgar Square and was headed our way. By then, there had been an attempt to snatch it and another to extinguish it. At least three explosions had happened (compressed sodium bicarbonate explosions – can’t quite call them bombs), and police had barely managed to prevent a conflagration between passionate protestors and zealous Chinese youth in Trafalgar Square.

In fact, the torch was making only crawling progress, surrounded respectively by Chinese security officials in blue tracksuits, Metropolitan Police in reflective yellow jackets and rapid action/ riot police in black, by the time it had reached us at Westminster.

The torch and the bearer were so well concealed in the multiple layers of security cordons, that it took me a good while to comprehend that the Olympic flame had gone past me. By the time I realized what had happened, the entourage had disappeared behind a corner and several ambulances and police vans were rushing down the Westminster Bridge making a grand ruckus.

I didn’t know exactly what route the relay was to take, but since I had seen, just this Friday, workers put up make-shift bleachers for the relay at South Bank Centre, I had a sense that the next stop would be a ceremony at the Centre. So after leisurely clicking a couple of pictures of the snow sliding off the slanted roofs of some landmarks, I ran towards the South Bank Centre, past the Town Hall and the London Eye.

The area was jam-packed by protestors weilding Tibetan flags and placards that read “Free Tibet”, “China, Talk to Dalai Lama” and “Human Rights Before Olympics”. A score of coppers were trying desperately to make sure that the venue didn’t look “too dangerous” to the Chinese. Oh, and there were also two huge flailing-arm inflatable tube dolls sporting pro-Tibet banners. After a few attempts, I gave up the idea of getting closer to what would be the core of the festivities.

Instead, having spotted the Relay buses arrive on the Waterloo Bridge, I slid past the banner-wielding, slogan-mouthing crowd towards the stairs leading to the terrace; if the torch were to come down here, it would have to come through somewhere, and these stairs seemed at least as good as any other entrance.

Luckily, the Chinese decided to use these very stairs to bring down the Olympic Flame. That’s correct: There was no torchbearer, only the blue track-suited Chinese, which perhaps made sense as there was no torch either, only the flame in its lantern.

So far, so good. But what next, considering that the ceremony at South Bank was likely to take a while, and there was not even a fleeting chance my being able to witness any of it, leave aside capturing any of it on camera?

I decided I wanted to beat the flame to the bridge and get to the parade before it started. So I ran to the Waterloo Bridge and discovered a barrier erected at the bridge’s approach stairs. As I jumped over the barrier and ran up the stairs, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a policeman at the top of the stairs taking a couple of steps towards me. Thankfully the torch was nowhere in the vicinity, and he decided not to tackle me.

On the bridge I was greeted by a seemingly interminable line of police mobikes parked on either sides of the relay buses. Oh, and also by the slogans, imprinted on the official vehicles of the relay, “Lenovo: New World. New Thinking.”, “Light the Passion, Share the Dream”, which seemed so ironical in the situation.

Since I did not have a good sense of the scheduled route of the torch, I sneaked a good look at and committed to memory the stops scedule pasted on a police motorcycle’s petrol tank; apparently, most police riders had pasted the schedule onto their mobikes for easy reference. This would stand me in good stead later on in the day.

There were about 10 Chinese students on the bridge, joyously waving a large Chinese flag and sporting Chinese-flag temporary-tattoos on their cheeks. There were also small groups of protestors, all over the bridge, adding up to about 100. They were mostly patiently holding on to their Tibetan flags, “Free Tibet” banners, and “Flame of Oppression” placards while chatting about and strolling on the bridge. Oh, and while I was there, which ended up being a long while, a group of 5-6 “hired Olympic supporters” in blue clothes and wigs went past, trying to hand out Samsung’s balloons, pom-poms, little flags and assorted cheering material.

By the time the torch arrived, the bridge was packed with protestors waving flags, placards and banners, and shouting slogans. The contingent was caught in a vast sea of protestors just a short-way down from the bridge, and there it decided that instead of taking the straight road down to Somerset House, it would make a detour, at least the second in the day. The first one occured when the Chinese Ambassador had to carry the torch through China Town instead of the originally scheduled path.

After an unpublicised change to the route, the Chinese ambassador carried the torch through Chinatown.BBC

China’s ambassador to Britain, Fu Ying, carried the torch through Chinatown, following a different route than originally planned, before handing it over without incident, AP said.CNN

Demonstrators swelled in number near the spot where Chinese Ambassador Fu Ying had been expected to carry the Olympic torch. Instead, Fu emerged with the torch in the heart of London’s Chinatown, managing to jog unhindered before handing it over to the next participant.AP

The real kicker came on Regent Street though when, for the first time in Olympic history, the torch had to be boarded on a bus and sped off. The protestors kept up with the bus, though, and we arrived at a jam-packed St. Paul’s. There was supposed to a grand ceremony on the steps of the cathedral, but even after waiting and planning for at least 20 mts, the security were unable to get the torchbearers off the bus. They sped off again!

There was no way to tear through the crowd, so I decided to go through from behind the cathedral in order to catch up with the rocketing bus. It was a long detour, however, and I missed it. After running in the general direction in which the bus had been pointing before scooting away, I figured that I had lost it.

I knew, from the police schedule on the motorcycle tank, that the procession was to go down across the Thames before returning to the north side of the river. By the time I reached the bridge, though, the torch had cleared quite some distance on the south side, as indicated by the hovering helecopters. So I dashed to the Tower Bridge to catch the torch on its way back from the south side.

Thankfully, I reached there with enough time to spare to find myself a good spot before the police pilot arrived to clear the crowds. The torch came shortly afterwards; apparently they had resumed the running just before the Tower Bridge.

And then as a protestor, quite some distance ahead of the torch, got onto the road and waved a Tibetan flag, a police officer sprinted and dived on him to take him down. My camera was slow to respond and, regrettably, I couldn’t capture the moment.

Photo source: NewsMax

I had a great angle on this shot – much better than the above picture shows. I remember rueing the wasted opportunity. While it lasted only a second, it was my first brush with the journalistic dilemma.

To be fair, on one hand I was no journalist or reporter, and on the other there was hardly anything I could have done for the poor guy being pounced upon at that moment. But what shamed me was that my first thought was that of a photo-op rather than the injuries sustained by the protestor in question. Had I become so self-absorbed and conceited that getting a good picture was somehow more important than suffering of a fellow man?

The incident also set me thinking about the question of safety and freedom, and the way our law enforcement works.

It is not an accident that George Orwell’s 1984 is set in London, nor that this town is the background for the Wachowski Brothers’ movie V for Vendetta. It is easy to see how a little bit of push could convert England into a police state.

Throughout the relay till then and after then I saw the police tackle and handcuff protestors on their whim and fancies. I’m not trying to demonize the Met; I spoke with many of the policemen and most of them were quite jolly and good-natured when you engaged them in a good way. However, there were quite a few consistently nasty ones that took upon themselves to keep London safe from the voices of discontent. This minority bunch acted pretty heavy-handedly and to a good extent abused the carte blance afforded to them.

I couldn’t help but think back to Philip Zimbardo‘s famous Stanford Prison Experiement, wherein perfectly healthy and nice students were transformed into sadistic guards and depressed prisoners by a mere role-play game over the short period of 6 days.

The funny aspect of it was that the Met Police behaved as if it were concerned for the well-being of the torchbearers when the fact remains that the safety of the torchbearers was never under threat, before, during or after they bore the torch. Not from the protestors, anyway.

The only harm that befell any one of them came from the security forces themselves. Specifically, Konnie Huq was “bashed about” when the Chinese security officials tried to prevent the torch from being snatched by an enterprising protestor. As Huq later recalled on a BBC program,

“…they wrestled him to the ground. There were so many people and everyone was shouting ‘just keep going’…I was a bit bashed about but I guess that’s par for the course in such a little brawl.”

The torch and torchbearers had to be packed off onto the bus and sped away again at Mile End.

There were quite some festivities planned at Stratford, with London 2012 welcoming Beijing 2008. But there was no stopping the Olympic torch bus, which just zoomed past towards Canary Wharf, leaving in its wake, just confusion and disappointment for the many colorful-costume-clad London 2012 performers, most of them children.

Even if one were unaware of the politics behind it all, one would have had to admit that there’s something seriously wrong with a picture where the torch and the torchbearers are on a coach, and it’s the police that’s running all the way.

This was reminiscent of George W Bush’s inauguration wherein he made history by becoming the first president not to be able to walk over, and had to be sped off in his limo. And we all know how that turned out.

Anyhow, since it was impossible now to catch up to the torch, I spent some time participating in the London 2012 festivities before boarding the Jubilee Line tube to North Greenwich.

At the O2, the path and time of arrival of the torch was shrouded in mystery due to the by now familiar game of “keep ’em guessing” being played by those “responsible for the security of the sacred Olympic flame”. Even so, when the torch arrived the thousands of protestors made the whole area echo with shouts of “Free Tibet”, “Talk to Dalai Lama” and “Stop the Killings” though they did not attempt to break down the barricades, much to the relief of visibly nervous law enforcement officers.

The closing ceremony was cut short with the news that The Sugababes, whose performace formed the major part of the ceremony, had withdrawn from the event.

Instead, all that the crowd had the pleasure of was a speech in Mandarin by Jiang Xiaoyu, Executive & Vice President of the Beijing Olympics Organising Committee. And what a fantastic speech it was!

I use the term “fantastic” rather literally here to refer to the fact that Xiaoyu’s speech seemed to be delivered from a fantasy world. While there were thousands upon thousands of protestors shouting slogans, jeering, and booing, Xiaoyu had his rose-tinted glasses firmly on, and his speech strictly scripted.

Xiaoyu delivered, with a wide smile, words completely contradictory to reality, choosing not to even acknowledge any glitches or deviances from the plan. Essentially, he thanked London for the “warm welcome” and waxed on how “successful” the torch relay had been. One would have expected him to at least have toned down the exuberance, but then again, the people in attendance that night weren’t his audience, nor were the people around the world; his audience were the people back home, watching him on the state-run television.

This experience gave me some sense of what life might be like in a totalitarian regime. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say that I saw the kind of suffering that many have witnessed and endured in the communist societies; I’m not daft enough to even imagine that. Many nations have endured, and many continue to endure, unspeakable atrocities under closed governments. What happened here wasn’t even a minuscule fraction of that.

What I do mean is that it opened for me a little window of understanding and insight into what it might be to live under an oppressive regime. I caught a slight, little glimpse of what it might be like when not just one is persecuted for having an opinion and voicing it, but also that one’s voice is prevented from reaching the ears of one’s fellow man. I caught gained a slightly better understanding of what it might be like when those in positions of power not only draw wrong conclusions based on the facts, but actually can choose to completely ignore the facts…choose to not acknowledge the facts.

And if the behavior of the Vice President of the Beijing Olympics Organising Committee surprised you, what would you say if I were to tell you that the Chinese media demonstrated a complete lack of journalistic integrity by completely omitting the protests from its news reports?

As the BBC reported:

Pictures of the London relay were broadcast on China’s state-controlled TV, but not of the protests and disruption.

And while the world press covered the event variously as:

The Times: Arrests and scuffles as Olympic torch crosses London

…Olympic flame was detoured away from its pre-planned route and placed on a bus on the advice of police, who said they could no longer guarantee to maintain order in the face of vigorous protests.

At points on the 31 mile route a phalanx of police officers, marching with their arms locked around each other’s shoulders, had to form a protective ring around the flame in order to ensure that the torchbearer could continue to make progress.

Two activists were taken away by police after attempting to put out the torch with fire extinguishers.
“Like many people in the UK we feel that China has no right parading the Olympic torch through London,” they said. “Our protest is not directed at the Chinese people whatsoever but instead at the brutal Chinese regime that rules them.”

“It is deeply sad that the Chinese through their brutality in Tibet have contaminated the Olympic ideal,” said Norman Baker MP, president of the Tibet Society, in a statement on the Free Tibet Campaign’s website.

The Guardian: Chaotic scenes at London Olympic torch relay

Three rings of guards, both British police and Chinese officials, ran alongside anxious-looking torch bearers throughout the 31-mile (50-km) journey.

“We’re here to get the message to the Chinese government to fulfil their promise to improve their human rights record, which they made when they got their Olympic bid in 2001,” (Lizzy Pollard, 35, China campaign coordinator for a north London branch of Amnesty International) said.

The torch’s journey was plagued from the start as snow showers covered London and kept many people away.

AP: Scuffles During UK Olympic Torch Relay

Demonstrators tried to board a relay bus after five-time Olympic gold medalist rower Steve Redgrave launched procession at Wembley Stadium — presaging a number of clashes with police along the torch’s 31-mile journey.

The protests have forced officials to make unscheduled changes to the relay route, Metropolitan Police said. Thirty people have been arrested.

Activists demonstrating against China’s human rights record and a recent crackdown on Tibet have been protesting along the torch route since the start of the flame’s 85,000-mile odyssey from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing, host of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The Telegraph: Tibet protests disrupt Olympic torch parade

The Olympic torch has arrived at the O2 Arena after chaotic scenes during its tour of London as more than 35 protesters were arrested.

The parade was brought to a temporary halt five times in its first few miles as anti-China protesters made repeated attempts to breach security, including one man who tried to extinguish the flame with a fire extinguisher.

Sunday Express: 30 Protestors Arrested at Olympic Torch Relay

Former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq fell victim to one angry protestor who tried to snatch the torch from her hands and another tried to put the flame out with a fire extinguisher.

BBC: Clashes along Olympic torch route

Thirty-five arrests have been made after clashes between pro-Tibet protesters and police as the Olympic torch made its way through London.

CNN: Angry protests as torch reaches London

Protesters angry about China’s human rights record and its recent actions in Tibet scuffled with police and made attempts to grab the Olympic torch and douse it with a fire extinguisher Sunday.

CBS WHP TV 21: Protesters force changes to Olympic torch relay route

Unscheduled changes to the relay route and demonstrators trying to snuff out the Olympic torch are what police have been dealing with in London during today’s torch relay.

France 24: Scuffles disrupt Olympic torch relay in London

Scores of Chinese officials in blue suits and British police on foot and bicycles guarded the celebrities and athletes carrying the torch but demonstrators repeatedly broke through their security cordon.

The London Paper: Olympic torch protest

Hundreds lined Bayswater Road, many wearing Tibetan flags and carrying signs which read “Stop the killing in Tibet”, “No Olympic torch in Tibet” and “China talk to Dalai Lama”.

(You may also check out the photo story at Monster and Critic)

While the world media was reporting as above, the Official Torch Relay website had this report:

Olympic flame crosses London amid snow

The heavy snow in London exerted slim effect on people’s passion of seeing Beijing Olympic flame as large crowds lined along the street to greet the relay of torch on Sunday in the host city of 2012 Games.

London boasted the longest relay of nearly 50 kilometers among cities outside China’s mainland.

“It’s really a great pleasure to see Londoners smiling and waving.”

alongwith a feel-good photo that had the caption

(Torchbearer Giles Emily (C) holds the torch during the Olympic torch relay in London, capital of Britain, April 6, 2008)

There was not a single mention of any protests, let alone disruptions. Not one mention!

And the organizers cannot even simply shrug and say that they merely used the news item filed by the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency, because they strategically omitted one sentence from the Xinhua story:

Redgrave just criticized the binding of Olympics and politics days before the relay.

This is a strong indication that the Olympic organizers don’t even want to let out the fact that there were any protests. It would seem audacious and foolhardy on their part to believe that they could keep 1.3 billion people in the dark. Unless it were true.

Oh, and their Found a mistake link, meant to allow readers to report errors, was not working on the page carrying this news story.

Most Chinese media outlets toed the Xinhua line, with the “happy news” pictures:

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (4th L), British Olympic Minister Tessa Jowell (5th L) and torchbearer Denise Lewis (6th L) applaud as disabled torchbearer Ali Jawad (3rd L) starts with the torch outside 10 Downing Street in London, capital of Britain, April 6, 2008.

Torchbearer Fu Ying, China’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, runs with the torch during the Olympic torch relay in London, capital of Britain, April 6, 2008.

and several pictures showing cheerful crowds bearing Chinese flags egging on the torchbearer. Of course, what they fail to mention is that these photos are actually from China Town to where the torch had to be detoured when the protesting crowds had made it impossible for Chinese Ambassador Ying to carry the torch through the scheduled route.

As far as I have found, the only Chinese media outlet to have mentioned any disruptions is Shanghai Daily (I am guessing that its audience consists, in large part, a Western-expat population working in Shanghai):

25 held as protesters fail to sabotage London relay

Of course, it quickly qualifies that headline with:

As part of a grand festival in London, tens of thousands people lined the route of the relay to cheer the event, far outnumbering protesters.

This, of course, is utter rubbish. The “Journey of Harmony” was so marred by disruptions that it cost London over £1 million to provide security for the event.

Many spectators voiced disapproval of attempts to disrupt the torch relay by those who claimed they had done so for “political causes.” Cathy Sing, a London resident, said that she was puzzled by the protesters who said they were supporting the “independence of Tibet.”
“Tibet has been part of China for several hundred years,” she said, adding that the disruption had been well-planned to tarnish China’s image.

I have no doubt that Cathy is a London resident. I do wonder, though, what sort of a surname “Sing” is. My money is on Chinese.

Nick, a British university student who was watching the event in central London, said that “sports should be separated from political things.”

And what, pray tell, be your surname “Nick”? I am betting that Shanghai Daily meant British-university student, not British university-student.

This is not to say that the Western media is completely objective and journalistically rigorous.

For instance, while all world media outlets except the Chinese ones reported that The Sugababes backed out from their closing ceremony performance,

In a blow to the relay’s finale, pop band The Sugababes withdrew from the closing event saying one of their singers was suffering with laryngitis. The Guardian

some failed to report that, as BBC noted, they had participated in one leg of the relay earlier in the day.

Girl band The Sugababes withdrew from the finale at the last minute, saying singer Amelle Berrabah had been diagnosed with laryngitis. They had earlier carried the torch on an open top bus down Oxford Street.

As far as I have been able to determine, in the aftermath of the protests, only France24 reported the Dalai Lama’s statement, “The hosting of the Olympic Games this year is a matter of great pride to the 1.2 Billion Chinese people. I have, from the very beginning supported the holding of these games in Beijing. I feel the Tibetians should not cause any hinderance to the games.”

1 mt 11 secs

Please click the Play button above. Video source: France 24

Similarly, the media’s discomfort with “lawbreakers” surfaces when it seems to imply that torchbearer Konnie Huq was in some way harmed, “bashed about” to be precise, by the protestors.

The fact, of course, is that Huq was bashed about in the Chinese security personnel’s efforts to save the torch from being snatched (Naturally! Where did you think the loyalties of the Chinese security agencies lay – with the torch or with the bearers – when you allowed them to be the first ring around the torch?). This is clear from the videos of the incident as also from Huq’s statement. Most media outlets simply chose to not use her full quote, and to plant some seeds in the readers’ imagination.

However, the Western media occasionally just indulges in the sin of spin. It hardly ever, if ever, completely fabricates stories or buries news. The extent of media manipulation in the West is usually limited to ideological representation, not distortion of facts. (If you are Al Franken and want to call me to tell about Fox News etc. in the US, don’t bother. I’ve read your books – they are excellent and hilarious)

Besides, due to the multiplicity of voices, the biases of one vehicle are typically balanced by those of the other. Thus, a person committed to the truth can, at least theoretically, examine all available evidence and make up his or her own mind about issues.

Not so in China, where the press apparently has no professional integrity at all.

After such blatant disregard for truth shown by the Chinese reportage of the London relay, the question is exactly how willing are we to accept China’s claims that about the scale, extent, and intensity of oppression in Tibet? How honorable are China’s intentions, and how credible are its promises?

But the Olympics are about bringing the world together and it is not right to mix politics with sports, most critics of the protests will tell you. In fact, this is the strongest rationale presented by pro-rally, anti-prostest speakers, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

Beijing Olympic torch relay spokesman Qu Yingpu told the BBC: “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.”

Julie Li, 28, also from China but living in Britain, said sport and politics should be kept apart.The Guardian

(Sir Steve) Redgrave just criticized the binding of Olympics and politics days before the relay. Xinhua

My gut reaction is to label this as disingenuity. But if any of these speakers actually believe what they are saying, then they are displaying incredible naïveté. The fact is that the international relay of the Olympic torch was started in 1936 by Adolf Hitler to make a statement about Germany’s status in the world.

For the 2008 games, China has taken the sentiment to heart and has already irrevocably mixed the Olympics with politics by declaring that the Olympic torch would go through Tibet, in order to make the statement that Tibet is a part of China. Having made such an overtly political move, it is hypocritical and unbelievably audacious on China’s part to appeal that there be no political statements around Olympic-related activities, and no sensible person would buy into China’s rationalization.

Protesters are particularly incensed that the torch will be carried through Tibet by Chinese officials in June. The Free Tibet Campaign accuses Beijing of using the torch for its own propaganda purposes.The Times

Besides, of course, it is no secret that the Olympics have seen wide-ranging boycotts in 1956, 1976, 1980 and 1984 for political reasons. The People’s Republic of China itself did not participate in Olympics till 1984 protesting Taiwan’s participation.

So please don’t tell us that politics has no role in sports or vice-versa. Politics and sports have always gone hand in hand, and always will.

It is widely believed that China annexed Tibet in 1959. China may sincerely believe that Tibet is and has always been an integral part of its territory. It may be possible to arrive at a peaceful solution to these political differences. But instead of talking with Dalai Lama (who has always advocated peace and friendship towards China), China chooses to import Hun Chinese into Tibet (so much so, that the Huns now outnumber Tibetans in Tibet) and to persecute and even execute Tibetans. If this doesn’t give the world a genuine reason for an outcry out of outrage, what would?

Some critics of the protests also point to the fact that Dalai Lama himself has supported the games and asked that they not be boycotted. These statements betray a misunderstanding of the protests.

When Beijing had bid for the 2008 Olympics, China had promised to improve its human-rights record in Tibet. However, just last month violent oppression of Tibetans protestors has raised the heckles of the likes of Amnesty International. While Beijing puts the casualties down to low two digits, there is no way to independently verify this as China has completely locked Tibet down.

This is a regime that gunned down hundreds, if not thousands, of its own students (remember Tiananmen Square?); would it have and would it in the future hesitate for a second to kill or torture the Tibetans?

…human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell jumped into the road carrying a sign calling for the release of Chinese activist Hu Jia, who was jailed Thursday.
“The arrest last week of human rights activist Hu Jia shows that China is not fulfilling its human rights commitments which were part of the deal for them to get the Olympics,” Tatchell told PA, “At the very least, world leaders should boycott the opening ceremony and athletes should wear Tibetan flags when they go on the podium to receive their medals.”

(Buddhist monk Ngawang Khyentse) said, “We can’t just remain silent. We have no other choice than to protest because there is no other voice for Tibetans inside Tibet, so we have to speak out for human rights.”
“At the very least the British government has to speak out and condemn the crackdown in Tibet. They must not keep silent.”
The London Paper

The protests are really demands that China fulfill its promise by stopping the massacre and allow Red Cross and international journalists in Tibet.

(Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell) told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend: “I hope that the message that will go round the world is that, yes, there are many citizens of the UK who feel very strongly about China’s human rights record, there are people in the UK who feel very strongly about the importance of dialogue with the Dalai Lama, and that in the UK we cherish the right to lawful and peaceful protest which, by and large, is what we have seen today.” The Telegraph

While organization of Beijing Olympics almost seems inevitable at this point in time, the event has been irreversibly politicized, and sooner or later every country will be called upon to take a stand on the issue one way or the other.

Click here to check out my pictures from the Olympic Torch Sunday of 06 Apr 2008.
P.S. – There are three pages in this album! If you’re not running the slideshow, don’t forget to check out the second and third pages 🙂

— Update 8 April: Paris —

By now it has been widely reported that the relay route was cut short and altered in Paris and that the torch completed a large part of the route on coach because of the intense protests. It is also well known that the Olympic flame was put out on at least three occasions in Paris.

On Eiffel Tower – A gift from Reporters Without Borders to the torch relay

Photo source: France 24

Photo source: CNN

France 24: Protests cut short Paris leg of Olympic torch relay

Three times in the course of its 28-kilometer route through the City of Lights, the Olympic flame was extinguished by security officials due to the unprecedented number of demonstrations, forcing authorities to put the torch on a bus for security reasons.

A planned ceremony at the city’s grand City Hall, to mark the torch’s passage through Paris was cancelled, according to the office of the Paris mayor.

Now consider the news piece put forward by the Official Torch Relay website: Olympic torch relay in Paris conludes (sic)

And while this report does acknowledge for the first time the presence of protestors and concedes that part of the relay was continued on coach, there is no mention of the fact it was extinguished on several occasions.

Instead, it goes on to state something you may not have heard before:

Spectators of the Beijing Olympic torch relay were greatly annoyed and angered by Tibetan separatists and their supporters attempting to disrupt the Monday event in Paris, the fifth leg of the flame’s global tour.

Tens of thousands spectators went to the street of Paris to watch the torch relay, which covers 28 kilometers starting the Eiffel Tower and ending at the Stade (Stadium) Charlety in the south of the city.

For a humorous and satirical take on the relay, check out The Daily Show‘s report:
3 mts 13 secs
— Update 17 April: New Delhi —

My interest in the torch’s relay through New Delhi is quite natural. For one, I was curious to see the attitudes of my own people towards the relay. But even more importantly, what happens in India is extremely important from the perspective that India houses hundreds of thousands of Tibetan refugees – the largest Tibetan population anywhere outside of Tibet.

And I had to satisfy my curiosity by parsing media reports.

France 24: Scores arrested as Indian leg of Olympic relay ends

…security personnel far outnumbering the schoolboys and the other few select onlookers allowed to watch.

An estimated 16,000 police, soldiers and even elite commandos were deployed to throw up a huge security cordon around the central thoroughfare between the presidential palace and India Gate, two of New Delhi’s main landmarks.

Another 46 Tibetans were arrested in India’s financial capital Mumbai as they tried to storm the Chinese consulate…

In neighbouring Nepal, police said they had arrested more that 500 Tibetan refugees as they protested outside the Chinese embassy…

CNN: 200 arrests as ‘fortress’ New Delhi hosts torch relay

…officials shortened the original 5.6 mile (9 km) torch route to 1.5 miles (2.3 km), and lined it with more than 15,000 security personnel for the 30-minute event.

Officers detained another 32 protesters even before the torch touched down on Indian soil…

The Times of India: Low-key torch run, protests elsewhere

There were almost no crowds apart from some flag-waving Chinese and a few dozen school children bussed in by officials. Surrounded by Chinese attendants, Indian security guards in tracksuits, and police and troops with automatic rifles, runners could only wave to the television cameras.

Having lived in New Delhi for several years, I have to say that the short straight stretch between Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate is like a huge stadium, and if the access roads to it are blocked, it’s pretty much like having a private ceremony.

The numbers of police and army depolyed are astounding. Exactly what does a deployment of 15,000 law enforcement officials mean? Well, consider this: if on average an officer measures 40 cm wide shoulder-to-shoulder, then 15,000 of them standing shoulder to shoulder could line the whole 2.3 km stretch 2.6 times!

Since the torch doesn’t quite need the whole 2.3 km at the very same second, here’s another way to look at it: If the 15,000 officers were to cordon-off the torch by standing in adjacent concentric circles, with the closest one being as far away from the torch as 5m, then there would be at least 75 layers of policemen’s bodies between an observer and the torch!

I would have been disappointed with my people’s showing, but I take solace in the fact that Indian Football’s biggest star Baichung Bhutia and International Cricket’s biggest star Sachin Tendulkar opted out of the relay (three booes to Leander Paes, Dhanraj Pillai and Aamir Khan).

Additionally, there’s some comfort in CNN‘s words:

Public sympathy in India lies with the Tibetans, the majority of whom have sought refuge there since a failed uprising against China in 1959…But Indian officials had to balance public sentiment with diplomatic needs. Since India and China fought a border war in 1962, they have tried to thaw their frosty relations and forge close ties.

That said, while I understand the need to be polite to China, and to make all security arrangements necessary, I can not, for the life of me, understand why Delhi’s Chief Minister Shiela Dixit felt the need to personally participate in the proceedings. That she herself handled the torch is untenable.

The most amusing part of the New Delhi leg of the relay was not at the torch relay at all.

Apparently, (to use CNN‘s words) “…to wrongfoot protesters, Indian authorities did not disclose the relay route or the start time until 24 hours before the event”, and then “…sealed off roads…”

Faced with these formidable challenges, the protestors demonstrated remarkable but characteristic ingenuity, and organized their own torch relay, which started off at Rajghat, Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. This was a cross-community event, with at least Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist religious leaders participating.

While security forces were deployed at this torch relay as well to prevent unpleasant scenes, most media descriptions of the atmosphere at this relay include the word “festive”. In fact, CNN reported that at this event, the police were merrily chatting with the participants, and even passing around drinking water.

So while the Olympic Torch’s “Journey of Harmony”, which is supposed to be a people’s event, was effectively held behind closed doors, the Tibetan torch relay had all the elements of a festive, participative, grassroots event.

Of course, as you would have come to expect by now, the news report at the Official Torch Relay website is: New Delhi leg of Olympic torch relay concludes

— Update 22 April: Comedy —

A satirical take on the Chinese coverage of the protests
0 mts 59 secs

4 Responses to “Olympics, Tibet and Snow”

  1. very interesting. (as usual).
    i’ve been pondering with questions around this protests, and mine is – why didnt they protest when the games were GIVEN to china in 2001 in the first place? then it could have changed something. why now, all of the sudden? why with the torch, and not earlier this year? to me it seems opportunistic.
    the olympic torch relay is a cool thing, for “normal” people. why did they have to spoil it like that?

    on the other hand, welcome to the world of misinformation… yes, absolutely true, this (chinese media reports) is a sample on how masses are kept in the dark. or, rather, in a grey scale environment isolated from a coloured world. given the intensity of interaction between normal chinese people and the outside world, it is still unbelievable to me how they manage to do it. effective information distortion, i mean.

    on yet another hand, im guessing you know about this article about the riots in lhasa:


  2. oops, donno if the link works. lets try again, here

  3. Explorish,

    You’ve made some excellent points, as always.

    While I do not pretend to be an expert (or even to know very much) about the whole deal, let me try to address your points the best I can.

    Before that though, I’d say right off the bat that I consider myself to be one of the “normal” people, and I don’t have anything invested in the dispute, except as a fellow human being. So, yes, the Olympic torch is “cool” for me too 🙂

    And now, to the issue at hand. I think you raise a very good question as to why did all these people not protest the award of the Olympic games to China in 2001? And isn’t it shamelessly opportunistic to do so now?

    Yes it is opportunistic to protest now. Is that a bad thing? I’m not so sure.

    Allow me to explain. I believe Amnesty International and countless other organizations saw the opportunity to make the voice of Tibet heard, and in the spirit of “carpe diem”, they siezed the opportunity.

    However, “opportunistic” is a term that has come to signify promiscuity regarding beliefs – to change one’s position on an issue depending on what’s beneficial in the circumstances (cases in point: John McCain, Mitt Romney. Uh, oh, looks like I am getting overly political here). If that’s what you meant by it, then I beg to differ as these groups have not changed their position, which is that China needs to improve its record on Tibet.

    Next, it’s not entirely accurate that there were no protests in 2001. In fact, when Beijing was considered for the award, there were outcries by human-rights organizations around the world. So much so, that there was, as CNN reported, “…a motion passed by a U.S. congressional committee opposing the Games because of its record on human rights.” Similarly, “The European Parliament has called for the Games to be denied to Beijing,…over…human rights issues…“, NYT reported.

    China promised it would improve its record and was awarded the games.

    : January 23, 2001: “China will probably ratify a major international rights convention by the end of March, officials said today.

    NYT: July 12, 2001: “The Bush administration’s neutral stance is based in part on a belief that the Chinese government may temper its domestic and foreign policies over the next seven years to avoid the possibility of a Western boycott of the Olympics.

    NYT: July 14, 2001: The (IOC) committee’s delegates expressed widespread hope that a seven-year buildup to the 2008 Games would accelerate openness in China and facilitate improvement in its record on human rights.

    NYT: July 14, 2001: “As China further opens to the world in preparation for the Olympics and for its expected entry into the World Trade Organization, Mr. Yuan (China’s minister of sport) said, economic progress ”will bring along advances in culture, health, education, sport and, not least of all, corresponding progress in human rights causes.’

    When the award announcement was made, as CNN reported, the Chinese reveled, “But Taiwan, whose independence China has threatened to quash with an invasion, greeted the decision very differently. Optimism that peace between the two would be almost assured in lead-up to the Games was tainted by fears the Chinese victory could exacerbate growing nationalism on the mainland — further fueling their determination to take Taiwan back to its fold.” and “In New Delhi, the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile slammed the choice,…’This will put the stamp of international approval on Beijing’s human rights abuses and will encourage China to escalate its repression,’ (spokesman for the India-based Central Tibetan Administration Kalon T.C. Tethong) said.” and “Francois Loncle, the head of (French) parliament’s foreign affairs committee, saw parallels with the decision to hold the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.” (By the way, just for the record, Berlin Olympics were awarded in 1931, before the Nazis came to power)

    Amnesty International also had concerns, as NYT reports: “‘We’re disappointed the I.O.C. didn’t get guarantees from the Chinese government on human rights issues before giving the Games away,’ said Sidney Jones, Asia director for the Human Rights Watch, based in New York.

    I think China deserved and deserves to host the Olympics. It is widely seen as a potential superpower. I think it IS a superpower. It is the world’s factory, is a nuclear power, maintains the world’s largest armed forces, has 1.3 Billion hard-working people, has some of the smartest brains in the world, has achieved an economic miracle, has lifted millions of people out of poverty, and has consistently ranked among the top few in Olympic medal-tallies for as long as it has participated in the Games. It deserves to host the olympics.

    Even the Dalai Lama (yes, it’s not his name but title, like “the Pope”) has, as France 24 reported, “…supported the holding of these games in Beijing.

    Not giving China the Games would not only have been unfair, I think it might have been counter-productive. I think it would just have rallied the Chinese people into solidarity with their government in a display of loyalty and patriotism. It’s the same reason that I think sanctions aren’t effective deterrents against Iran’s nuclear program. I remeber when sanctions were imposed on India, we all got behind the government and said, “Hey, it is matter of pride and honor for us. We will not be dictated to. If we need to make sacrifices for it, we will.” It is the same reason that I don’t believe democracy can be spread by coercion.

    CNN: March 20, 2001: “The Chinese Olympic Committee on Friday voiced ‘strong indignation’ at a motion passed by a U.S. congressional committee opposing the Games because of its record on human rights…Beijing would not bow to international pressure in releasing political prisoners to boost its Olympic bid.

    There was a need, however, to somehow convey to the Chinese people that the award of the games was not a triumph of the Chinese government but in honor of the great country and its people. The IOC completely failed in doing so, assisted, no doubt, by the media censorship in force on the mainland.

    The Observer: July 15 2001: “A warning from the IOC director-general, François Carrard, during a press conference after Friday’s vote (awarding the Games to Beijing) that human rights was ‘a very serious issue’ went unreported.

    NYT: July 12, 2001: “China’s top leaders remain stubbornly opposed to political reform even as they expand economic freedoms and encourage entrepreneurs. But the Chinese people seem to have higher hopes for their nation, as many demonstrated during the democracy movement of the late 1980’s.

    To cut a long yarn short, here’s the story so far:
    1. There were attempts to stop China from getting the 2008 Olympics

    2. China made the world believe that it would improve its record on human rights (in the cases of Tibet, Xinjiang, Falun Gong, etc)
    The Observer: July 15 2001: “Many Chinese…suggest that Beijing will be inhibited from taking forceful action against Taiwan. ‘Taiwan could declare independence [and] we could [do] nothing about it,’ said one comment posted on a People’s Daily website discussion group yesterday. ‘They have earned eight years of peace.’

    3. While some warned against it, Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics amidst hopes that things would improve.
    The Observer: July 15 2001: “(IOC director-general, François) Carrard told journalists that ‘we are taking the bet that seven years from now we sincerely and dearly hope we shall see many changes’.

    4. Unfortunately, things have not improved.
    The crackdown, and subsequent lockdown of Tibet being the latest example.

    In fact, in declaring the torch relay route, China decided to make a statement by taking the torch through Tibet. This has added diesel to what was simmering coal.

    5. Consequently, there are high-visibility protests around the torch, in addition to the low visibility ones in Tibet and elsewhere.
    The Telegraph India: March 10, 2008: “(The government has) halted a march from Dharamsala to Tibet, billed the “biggest protest” by Tibetans since the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.
    BBC: 10 March 2008: “…police in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, say that up to 80 protesters have been arrested. Eyewitnesses told the BBC between 1,000 to 3,000 Tibetan exiles and their supporters gathered at a large Tibetan Buddhist shrine, including many monks and nuns.

    The protests are not calling for a boycott of the games, which would be unfair to the Chinese people, not to mention unfair to the athletes that have been working for years on their respective sports. To the best of my understanding, and that may be called to question, the objectives of the protests are threefold:

    1. To raise awareness around the world regarding human rights abuses perpetrated and encouraged by China.
    I think there is not much doubt that the prostests have succeeded in bringing this issue to around the forefront of public discussions.

    2. To demonstrate to world leaders the importance of the issue, and to convince them to boycott the Opening Ceremony.
    A little bit of success here as well. e.g. – British PM Gordon Brown, who actually participated in the torch relay (not as a torchbearer) has now decided not to participate in the Opening Ceremony.

    3. To reach out to the people in China and those in certain African countries and to convey to them that this is something that the world cares about, and to implore them to ask questions of their government
    Because of the widespread censorship and minsinformation, I don’t think the protests have gained much traction in this area. That’s why objective 2 above is all the more important. If all, or almost all, of the important world leaders decline the invitation to the Opening ceremony, hopefully that might spark some sort of a debate within China.

    I generally favor a non-interventionist policy, but nothing wrong with getting your voice heard. I think that’s what these protests are about.

    As I mentioned in the beginning, the Olympic torch is “cool” for me too. I just happen to think that some things are even more important than sports. And from this perspective, peaceful protests around the torch were absolutely the right thing to do in my view. Again, I’d reiterate the point that I made in the post – the only harm that befell any one of the torchbearers came from the security forces themselves.

    But didn’t the protests “spoil” the spectacle for the rest of us? I think it was the paranoia of the security forces, not the protests or protestors themselves that “spoilt” it for us.

    Next to your point about how China manages to effectively achieve widespread misinformation, especially considering the intensity of interaction of Chinese people with the rest of the world. It certainly is almost incredible.

    Like everything that I have oversimplified above for my own understanding, this too, I guess, is a complex issue.

    For one, I am not quite certain that there is a lot of interaction, intense or otherwise, between the common Chinese citizen and the rest of the world. If you are referring to your and my good friends and former classmates, and tens of thousands of Chinese students studying abroad like them, I do not believe them to be ordinary citizens. They are the elite, the intellectuals: just consider the proportion that these people form of the 1.3 billion Chinese population.

    Apart from the students abroad, the other sect that probably has good international interactions are the top-notch business professionals – typically those working for large multi-national corporations in large cities like Shanghai. (I’d go out on a limb and speculate that a sizeable proportion of these professionals comes from the previous group).

    Third and last, I suppose, is some part of the population, in large business-center cities that have sizeable expat populations, that serve the expats (those managing swank hotels and plush cafes, Shanghai cabbies, etc). This last category, I think, is as close as it comes to “normal Chinese people”.

    Considering that the total population of Shanghai is barely 20 million, the proportion of people with international interactions seems decidedly minuscule (what a phrase!).

    But surely that means something! So many people engaging in intimate interactions everyday has to have some impact, right? Well, my guess is “not as much as one would imagine or want”.

    In non-work situations I suspect most of the discussions probably are more around cultural issues (a.k.a Jet Li and Britney Spears) than around contentious political ones (Tibet, human rights etc).

    Add to the mix the media censorship machinery, and you have a potent misinformation network. That Google China’s results are censored has been widely reported and condemned. But the Internet police task force, and The Golden Shield Project are not reported and dicussed often enough, though.

    And the funny thing is that during important events some of these restrictions temporarily disappear for major events or visits. e.g. – During the APEC summit in Shanghai during 2001, normally-blocked media sources such as CNN, NBC, and the Washington Post suddenly became accessible.

    More importantly, I think that our understanding of the censors is probably nothing more than scratching the surface. We tend to focus on censorship of the English-language media, which in any case has relatively lower reach. It has been reported that the Mandarin and Cantonese versions of news stories often differ substantially from their English versions, even on the same media channel.

    Oh, and just for fun, let me throw in this July 2001 report on Beijing Olympics from The Guardian: “Last week in Beijing, government censors tore pages carrying reports critical of China’s Olympic bid out of Western journals, including the Economist and International Herald Tribune. Access to foreign news websites, including CNN, the BBC and the Washington Post, continued to be blocked.

    Moreover, we see what we want to see in the world. All of us have perceptual filters that lead us to interpret the world around us in certain ways (moving from one thing to the other has made me acutely aware of my own filters). Chinese people, like people elsewhere in the world, are proud and patriotic. When they are fed day in and day out with government propaganda that tells them a certain thing, an odd accessible news piece here or there in the world press contradicting that is likely to come across as “Western minsinformation”, I would think.

    To end on a happy note, Reuters reports that on the insistence of the IOC, China has unblocked access to the English Wikipedia. Of course, “…politically sensitive topics such as Tibet and Tiananmen Square are still off limits.” and of course, “…the Chinese language version was still restricted.

    I was not aware of the The Economist article (there…just goes to show exactly how well informed I am). So, thanks for bringing it to my attention. It makes for a very interesting read indeed.

    Firstly, I’ll use the tried and tested method of launching an ad hominem attack to try and discredit the source. While it is the mighty The Economist (which, by the way, has a decidedly Thatherite-conservative slant though it tries to keep its journalistic standards high) that published the story, I suspect that like most of their local correspondents, their anonymous Beijing correspondent is also “local” – of Chinese ethnicity, in other words, and therefore possibly with a pro-China bias. While wherever hard numbers or facts are concerned, I’m sure journalistic integrity would have come first, for the rest of the piece there is a possibility that the opinions could have been informed by the bias.

    If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would also call into question the beginning of the piece:
    1. The first words of the article are “Ethnic Chinese”, while referring to the Han Chinese, misleading the reader to infer that they are indigenous to the region.
    2. The article begins with an imagery of destructions caused by the rioting, skewing reader perspective, when in truth it is excessively difficult, if not impossible, in such murky situations to actually figure out how the damn thing started. For example, Boing Boing‘s report title gives another slant to the story: “Tibetan protests in Lhasa turn violent as Chinese forces crack down” In the smoke and fog of confusion, is it really that easy to point out who started what?

    Jokes apart, I think it is important not to read more into the report than is written.

    For instance, were I a journalist, I would want to dig deeper into the “economic progress” numbers. It is all well and good to say that average incomes have risen 14% per annum and are expected to rise at the same level, but what is the split? Is it possible that the Han Chinese imported to the region (the ethnic group has gone from almost nil to over 50% of the region’s population – by itself creating unrest among Tibetans) might have benefited disproportionately from this “economic progress” and the native Tibetans may have gained precious little or no increases, and possible decreases, in real income?

    Similarly the statement “Not since the uprising of 1959, during which the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, fled to India, has there been such widespread unrest across this oxygen-starved expanse of mountains and plateaus.” should not be taken to mean that the region has been completely peaceful throughout or that there have been no protests, in the same way as the statement “World War I was the most widespread and bloody battle Europe had ever seen” can not be construed to mean that Europe hadn’t seen any wars before WWI.

    Also bear in mind that while the magic rail does provide an economic impetus (I remember marveling about the political acumen in integrating Tibet with rest of PRC, as also about the technological feats achieved during construction, when I first read about it a few years ago), there is a possibility that part of the motive was the same as the Nazi Rail in Europe or the British Rail in India – to achieve rapid troop deployment when needed.



    Related stories
    – NYT: May 24, 2001: China’s ‘Undesirables’
    – HRIC: April 18, 2001: More Arrests of Chinese-born Overseas Residents
    – Amnesty International: 22 March 2002: China’s anti-terrorism legislation and repression in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region
    – The Guardian: July 2001: ‘If China wins the Olympics, it will make progress on the promotion of human rights’.
    – Reporteurs Sans Frontiers: Beijing 2008 microsite

  4. But this is all speculation and guesswork on my part. I would love to hear your take on the information distortion mechanism – surely you have some firsthand perspectives from the time spent behind the iron curtain…

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