As I walk up St. George to the Chinese Consulate on Tuesday, March 25, a chill runs through me, and not because winter has made an unwelcome late-March comeback.
I’m thinking of something a friend of mine said recently: “Once China takes over the world as the dominant superpower, we’ll all be pining for the days of the American empire.”
Sitting on the frozen sidewalk across the road from the consulate, 40 supporters of the Tibetan freedom struggle are staging a week-long hunger strike (from 10 am until 4 pm). Such gatherings are becoming a common sight here.
More and more demos highlighting human rights violations either begin or end here rather than at that old standby, the U.S. Consulate on University – a macabre symbol of the passing of the superpower torch.
It’s not that the U.S. has suddenly become a beacon of international justice. It’s just that while it may have won the Cold War, it seems to have lost the battle for world domination.
And as at the height of the Cold War, when the USSR and the U.S. boycotted each others’ Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively, boycott talk is a burning issue here, too. Only it’s got some interesting and constructive modifications.
“We don’t think there should be a boycott of the Games right now,” says Bhutila Karpoche of Students for a Free Tibet and one of the organizers of the hunger strike. “But we are saying we don’t want the Olympic torch relay to go through Tibet.”
Others in the Tibetan solidarity movement are calling for Canadian elected officials to sit out the Games but send the athletes.
“We sent letters last week to the prime minister and all the opposition parties, urging them not to go to the Olympics,” says Dermod Travis, executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee. “Certainly, the athletes should go and compete and speak out, but we think no political leaders should attend.” However, like Karpoche, Travis says his group is not ruling out an eventual call for a full athlete boycott. “We have no idea what is going to happen in China between now and the Olympics,’’ he says.
The Harper government has called on China to respect the rights of Tibetans to peaceful protest but has so far been mum on any boycott.
Although Olympics officials were quick to tsk-tsk the politicizing after activists interrupted the flame-lighting ceremony in Greece earlier in the week, Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China says China has politicized the Games for its own purposes.
“The Chinese see this as their big coming-out party, much like Japan in 1964 and South Korea in 1988,” he says. “China is using the Olympics to announce its arrival on the world stage.”
The international scrutiny the Olympics brings has certainly become a double-edged sword for China. “People in Tibet have been trying to get the world’s attention for years, and finally, because the media are paying attention, the Tibet story is getting out,” says Kwan.
But only barely. In fact, hunger strikers sitting on the cold sidewalk worry both because they can’t get any info out of Tibet and are afraid of making contact with relatives for fear of endangering them.
“We feel very sad for our relations in Tibet,” says hunger striker Chime Dolker, who fled Tibet with her parents when she was six. “They are going through hard times, so hunger-striking here in the cold is our way of sharing their struggle.”
Photo By R. Jeanette Martin
China has been ruthless in controlling the news coming out of Tibet. Not only have foreign journalists been tossed out, but increasing Internet censorship has also made it almost impossible to get an accurate read on what’s happening there.
U of T prof Ron Deibert, director of the Psiphon Project, the celebrated Internet censorship circumvention tool, says that in addition to shutting down streaming sites like YouTube, China is engaging in ongoing “cyber-warfare.”
“A lot of Tibet activists are receiving targeted spoof e-mails containing viruses, cellphone harassment and other kinds of intimidation and trickery,” he says.
“We can’t really pinpoint the source of this campaign, but we know that not only is the government involved, but also citizens who are increasingly nationalistic and incensed by images in the state-controlled media.’’
This dearth of information is why veterans of the democracy movement in China that dates back to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre reject the idea of an Olympic boycott in favour of world leaders sitting out the opening ceremonies.
The idea is gaining traction among European leaders, especially in France. Kwan says the 1989 crackdown became a huge issue because the foreign press was there for a state visit by then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. “Let’s bring the world into China for the Olympics and let the Chinese government know that it can’t just do anything it wants.”
Bhutila Karpoche of Students for a Free Tibet on her groups stand on the Olympics:
Bhutila Karpoche of Students for a Free Tibet on the support her organization has received from other pro democracy movements:
Bhutila Karpoche of Students for a Free Tibet calls on the Canadian government to condemn China's actions in Tibet:
About 40 hunger strikers on the sidewalk chanting a prayer: