The Olympics: Dissent

John Pomfret
Washington Post Editor, Outlook
Wednesday, April 9, 2008; 1:00 PM

San Francisco officials and police scrambled Tuesday to find a path for the Olympic torch that would accommodate the obligations of hospitality and the city's historic tolerance for dissent, which has now targeted the Beijing Games.

John Pomfret, Washington Post editor of the Outlook section and blogger of Pomfret's China, will be online Tuesday, April 9, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the controversy surrounding the Olympic Games.

A transcript follows.


John Pomfret: Is China's "One World, One Dream" Olympics turning into a nightmare for the government in Beijing as anti-China protests erupt in London, Paris and now San Francisco? I think not. The protests actually seem to be bolstering the Communist government.


Washington, D.C.: It really seems that things with the torch have been disrupted. The protest groups must be very well organized. Will all this have any effect on the Olympics? Is there really a chance that they'd be called off?

John Pomfret: Definitely agree that the protests have been well-organized. But I see no chance at all that the Olympics will be called off.


New Haven, Conn.: Most Chinese are excited about their opportunity to host this year's Olympics. I don't think they are too pleased about how things have unfolded. Media in the West has not been fair in their coverage of the protests. In fact, many media outlets in Europe have used pictures captured outside of China to portray what happened in China. When confronted by the fact, they said they mislabeled the pictures, but refused to apologize. I think many in the West, particularly in the liberal media, need to beat down China in order for them to feel good, how far am I off?

John Pomfret: You raise an interesting point. I can only speak about my experience as a reporter in China -- two tours for about 7 years in total. I never really felt compelled to "beat down" China. However, I do think that the current bout of protests stems from an often knee-jerk anti-China feeling. People in the West are worried about what China's rise means for them. These protests are an example of that.


Washington, D.C.: So is the torch being run in San Francisco? What's going on now?

John Pomfret: There's no news yet about what's happening. SF Mayor Newson has said the route will be changed if the protests are too heavy. The police are expecting upwards of 6000 protesters (more than demonstrated a few weeks back in DC against the Iraq war).


Montgomery Village, Md,: The shame of it all is that the Olympics are quite literally supposed to be a time of no politics, a chance to form a bond between peoples of different cultures and nations where we leave our political or ideological differences out of the competition and focus solely on the athleticism and beauty of the human form. To use the Olympic torch as your symbol of political protest misses the entire point of the Olympic Games.

John Pomfret: That's a good point but China has also politicized it as well. Indeed, for as long as the Olympics have been around, they've been politicized.


Chicago Ill.: The Olympics are bloated and irrelevant. Pretty much every sport that nobody cares about anymore is highlighted in the Games (track? boxing? swimming? etc.), and the whole point of the Olympics now seems to be to perpetuate its own publicity.

I'm just wondering whether the Beijing Olympics will be a turning point -- when it finally became obvious that this made-for-TV spectacle was all spectacle and no substance, and where nothing of note happened other than the political protests nipping at the edges. Maybe cities will seriously rethink how much investment should go into hosting the Games. Maybe citizens won't take this so seriously anymore.

John Pomfret: That's an interesting point. I think that the bottom-line will be (once the Games actually get going) the competition. If the Games and the competition is good, I still think there will be life on the old dog yet.


Boston, Mass..: You said- 'The protests actually seem to be bolstering the Communist government.'

Maybe, but this is the only time human rights voices can be heard. Most times it's drowned by the lure and importance of Chinese economy. So this is the time to make them heard, peacefully that is.

John Pomfret: That's true, but I think you'd admit as well that there's a scattershot quality to the protests with demonstrators from all sides hauling out a laundry list of complaints against China. The Chinese government and many Chinese seem to feel like Western activists are piling on. That being said the Chinese response is pretty typical of a 1960's Cultural Revolution mindset. I mean calling the Dalai Lama "a jackal" and things like that.


Fairfax, Va.: This isn't the first time the Olympics have been "politicized," is it? What are some other examples of when the games caused so much dissent?

John Pomfret: The most recent instance was 1980 games in Moscow when the US and other nations boycotted the games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.


Annandale, Va.: Does the torch have many more stops left?

John Pomfret: It's supposed to go to each continent.


John Pomfret: Next stop for the torch is Argentina.


Annapolis, Md.: Hillary Clinton says she thinks Bush should boycott the open ceremonies. Bush says he's not changing his mind. Does this subject belong in political debate?

John Pomfret: I don't think that anything can be excluded from politics, really. Interestingly enough, though, China usually plays a role in US presidential elections, but so far this year (other than Clinton's recent statement), all three major candidates, Obama, Clinton and McCain, have all but ignored it.


Chicago, Ill.: I doubt that the many people criticizing China on the Tibet issue understand what China has gone through in its long history, i.e., being torn apart by the West and being falsely labled as an aggressor. If Tibet were truly free, it would have no form of self-support other than tourism. It has no natural resources. China supports Tibet financially and has done so for the long term.

John Pomfret: Very true. And signficantly the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of the Tibetans, does not support independence. He has said on many occasions that Tibet wants autonomy.

On your other point, I agree, many in the West have little understanding of China's history and experiences at the hands of Western powers, e.g. the Opium Wars.


Bethesda, Md.: The theatrics of the Olympics are largely about promoting the host country -- especially the torch relay and the opening ceremonies, much more so than the actual athletic competitions (which is why I think that protesting at the torch appearances and boycotting the opening ceremonies are appropriate, but also believe that the athletes should go and compete). Given China's own stifling of dissent, not just in general but in a concerted crackdown that is 'directly tied' to its presentation of the Olympics, I think it's good that dissenters are making themselves heard wherever they can. I do wish they wouldn't physically threaten or throw things at innocent torch runners, though.

John Pomfret: China is very bad at taking any criticism. When Chinese officials meet with Western mayors, for example, they will demand that the mayors ban all protests, etc. They really don't understand that things work differently in our society than theirs.


Alexandria, Va.: I don't believe that the protests stem from a "beat-down China feeling." When the IOC gave China the games, it was implicit that political improvements were expected. China has, if anything, backpedaled.

John Pomfret: And China assured the IOC that the Olympics would improve human rights. However, I do get the sense that anyone with a gripe against China feels empowered to pile on the PRC. The Olympics have created, for better or worse, political space to criticize China. And people are doing it with alacrity. But I wonder whether it's going to bring about any significant change.


Baltimore, Md.: Should China have been granted the Olympics in the bidding or however they choose? With everyone so concerned about human rights this seems to have been a bad initial decision on the part of the IOC. What do you think?

John Pomfret: There's an argument for that. But there was also a feeling among officials on the IOC whom I've spoken with that the games would prompt change in China for the better. They were thinking about the positive political and social changes that happened in South Korea after 1988. And Chinese officials insisted that Olympics would improve human rights as well.


John Pomfret: Thanks a lot for fun discussion!


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