The Saffron Olympics

Saturday, September 29, 2007

BY NOW China's Communist rulers must have realized that one unintended consequence of hosting the 2008 Olympics is unprecedented global scrutiny of Beijing's retrograde foreign policy. For decades, one pillar of that policy has been the cynical political and economic exploitation of rogue states that most of the rest of the world shuns -- notably North Korea, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Burma. Under growing international pressure, and with the looming threat of a besmirched Olympics, Chinese policy is slowly changing. But not fast enough, as this week's events in Burma demonstrate.

In the past three days, Burma's ruling junta has carried out a bloody and criminal crackdown on a peaceful protest movement led by thousands of Buddhist monks. The regime admits that 10 people have died in the volleys of gunfire and the baton charges its soldiers have directed at demonstrators. More likely is that the death toll is in the scores. Hundreds of monks and democratic opposition activists have been rounded up at night and trucked away to unknown fates; troops have occupied and ransacked monasteries.

Sadly, the degree of international outrage over these events has been inversely proportional to the influence those speaking out have over the Burmese regime. The Bush administration and European Union have been admirably outspoken, but the generals have a long record of dismissing the West. Burma's neighbors, who made the controversial decision to admit the regime to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations a decade ago, expressed "revulsion" at the use of violence against the protests but did not call for an end to military rule. India, which has struck military and economic deals with Burma, was even milder, saying it "is concerned at and is closely monitoring the situation."

But the weakest response of all was left to China, which did $2 billion worth of business with Burma last year alone and is its principal supplier of weapons. China's ambassador at the United Nations blocked a Security Council resolution condemning the crackdown. The strongest word Beijing has been able to cough up is "restraint." U.S. officials counted it as an achievement that China supported the dispatch of a U.N. envoy to Burma. Western diplomats speculate that Chinese officials are pressuring the Burmese generals behind the scenes; they note that earlier this month a senior Chinese official made a cryptic statement to visiting Burmese leaders about "a democracy process that is appropriate for the country."

This is arguably more than would have been done a decade ago by a Chinese government that massacred its own democracy movement in 1989. It's in keeping with Beijing's incrementally more constructive policies toward North Korea -- which it has nudged toward giving up nuclear weapons -- and Sudan, which it has pressured to accept international peacekeepers in Darfur.

China's behavior is nevertheless a pathetically puny response to savage brutality by one of the world's most corrupt and illegitimate governments. Burma's generals might not take orders from Beijing. But the failure of President Hu Jintao's leadership to forthrightly condemn the repression has had the effect of giving the junta a green light. Burma's saffron-robed monks will join Darfur's refugees in haunting the Beijing Olympics -- which are on their way to becoming a monument to an emerging superpower's immorality.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company