IOC Panel To Discuss Altering Torch Relay

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

BEIJING, April 8 -- Top members of the International Olympic Committee, distressed by the raucous anti-China protests that marred the torch relay in London and Paris, will meet Friday to discuss whether to change, or perhaps even end, the international leg of the journey.

As the torch arrived in San Francisco to begin its next stage on Wednesday, Chinese officials vowed the relay will continue on its planned route, while countries in line to host the torch relay said they are stepping up security.

Meanwhile, the president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, was asked at a news conference in Beijing whether the continuation of the international relay is certain.

"I'm not saying whether it is certain or not," he said. "There will be a discussion of the executive board on the torch relay, but I attach on that absolutely no speculation whatsoever."

Vigorous street protests in Paris and London sent the torch's triumphal run into disarray, and organizers were bracing for more of the same in San Francisco. Thousands of protesters are expected to gather, with actor Richard Gere and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu scheduled to lead a candlelight vigil in support of Tibetan rights, and a counter-relay and other events being organized by a variety of groups.

On Monday, several hundred people protested in the city, as officials said they might alter the flame's route to avoid a clash, according to news reports.

Rather than a symbol of the Olympic spirit, the torch has become a magnet for protesting myriad Chinese policies on Tibet, human rights, press freedoms and its support of repressive governments in Burma and Sudan.

Chinese and Olympic spokesmen issued strong condemnations of the protests, calling them "vile" and "blasphemy." Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu emphasized in a news conference that people did not understand the facts of what is happening in China. "Playing up some topics to tarnish China's image ahead of the Olympics will surely get nowhere," she said.

Official Chinese media broadcast images from Monday's protests in Paris. Newspapers generally blamed the actions on Tibetan "separatists," although one newspaper, the Global Times, criticized the French government for not doing more to protect the flame.

Qu Yingpu, spokesman for the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay team, emphasized that the relay is meant to bring people together, not tear them apart. "Mutual understanding and respect is particularly crucial in the context of intensifying globalization," Yingpu wrote in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper.

Among students on Beijing campuses, reaction to the protests was relatively muted.

"I'm surprised about what the protesters did, but there's no smoke without fire. I think our government didn't handle the Tibetan issue as perfectly as we imagined," said Guan Jiaxin, a 25-year-old physics student from Tsinghua University. "Next time all of our internal problems have to be dealt with well before we host another event like this."

Another student, who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his surname, Shen, said: "It's not hard to understand why they protest so strongly during the torch relay . . . they think human rights is above all."

Shen, a 23-year-old international relations student at Beijing University, said that "the origin of the huge difference in understanding between the West and China is complicated. It's not simply because the Chinese government is not transparent or the Western media is biased, but because Cold War thinking still hasn't finished in the West. The majority of people who haven't come to China or don't know much about China still think that the Communist-led government must be an evil government."

Although many groups, including the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, have stationed protesters along the torch's route, most of the reaction in China to the relay protests was focused on those supporting autonomy for Tibet. Protests erupted in Tibetan regions of China on March 10, when monks were arrested for demonstrating and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. The protests soon spread and, in some places, broke out into deadly riots in the worst unrest Tibet has experienced in nearly 20 years. Thousands of Chinese armed police were sent to put down the protests and arrest those involved, sparking condemnations from international human rights groups.

"Some international media have biased opinions about the Tibet issue," said Zhang Wanli, a 24-year-old Beijing travel agent. "They should pay more attention to the human rights issues and minority issues in their own countries."

Researchers Liu Liu and Liu Songjie contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company