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Olympic Relay Highlights China's Public Image Crisis

Pro-Tibet protesters demonstrate at Paris' Trocadero, opposite the Eiffel Tower, during the Beijing Olympics torch relay amid high security on Monday.
Francois Durand
Getty Images
Pro-Tibet protesters demonstrate at Paris' Trocadero, opposite the Eiffel Tower, during the Beijing Olympics torch relay amid high security on Monday.

The recent anti-China protests that erupted as the Olympic torch passed through Istanbul, London and Paris and riots in Tibet in March have created China's worst public relations crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Now, the Chinese government is caught between the need to look tough at home and conciliatory abroad.

China's state television is often heavily censored, but it hasn't flinched from showing scenes of protesters tussling with police and lunging at the torch in Whitehall and on the Champs Elysees en route to Beijing, site of the 2008 Summer Games.


Many Beijing residents say they feel insulted and outraged.

"The Olympics are supposed to be about world peace and athletic spirit," says software engineer Han Xiao. "I think people who cause these disruptions are detestable."

Long Zhicai, a salesman, says, "As an ordinary citizen, I can only express my anger at this situation. But I can't participate in any direct action because the government would prevent it."

Journalist Li Datong says the anti-China protests just reinforce the Chinese government's well-worn historical narrative that Western imperialists are trying to keep the country down.

"Their narrative says that the Chinese people have suffered persecution for the past century, and it's only now that China has become a global player capable of holding this great event," Li says. "There's a sense of national pride."


Nationalistic Chinese Internet users also have accused Western media of distorting facts about the unrest in Tibet.

On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu rejected suggestions that the government was stirring up nationalist sentiment among Chinese.

"I don't think the government could instigate this, nor does it need to," Jiang said. "This is a spontaneous response. Western media have aroused Internet users' righteous anger."

With the challenges to its authority from Tibet and abroad, Beijing is loath to appear weak or make concessions.

Human rights campaigner John Kamm has encouraged Chinese officials to improve their public image abroad through a goodwill gesture. But he says Chinese officials seem more preoccupied about how they are viewed at home.

The government realizes that international public opinion has turned sour, he says, but opinion among the Chinese people has never been better.

Some observers think Beijing could still salvage the situation in the four months before the Summer Games begin, and that sports will prevail over politics.

Shortly after the violence in Tibet, the Los Angeles-based polling firm Kelton Research asked 1,000 Americans what they thought about the Olympics and politics.

Gareth Schweitzer, a partner with the firm, says 90 percent of respondents said they agree with the statement that the Olympics and politics should be kept separate, while 70 percent agree with that statement "strongly."

And 21 percent of those polled said they supported boycotting the Beijing Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee says it may consider cutting the torch relay short in response to the protests. Beijing insists it will carry the relay through to the end and says it's working with American officials to ensure the torch makes it safely through San Francisco — its sole planned stop in the United States — on Wednesday.

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