How San Francisco Became Beijing for a Day

Human Rights

Democracy took a dive in San Francisco yesterday.

Earlier this week, the International Olympic Committee was considering scrapping the entire Olympic torch run due to the controversy and protests surrounding it. Apparently, PR-value and face-saving prevailed over common sense, and rather than cancel the contentious run, the IOC, the City of San Francisco, and the Chinese government collaborated to make the run happen in the only way possible -- they transformed the City into Beijing for a day.

At first I watched with mild amusement as police officers, secret service, and Chinese officials went to comical lengths to disguise the torch route and prevent protesters from approaching. Like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, the torch was hurriedly moved from one mode of transportation to the next, from boat to van to ... Duck Truck? However, my amusement soon gave way to anger, as the charade developed into an ugly display of first amendment violations and thuggish police tactics, and everything the City of San Francisco stands for was trampled on. People's Armed Police -- the same force implicated in the shootings of unarmed Tibetans on the Tibet-Nepal border -- roamed freely through the streets. Tibetans with flags were forced to vacate public gathering spaces while Chinese nationals were allowed to remain. A phalanx of riot cops -- five deep -- guarded the torch at every step, shoving protesters out of the way.

For a city like San Francisco, with a colorful history of free speech and protest, this was a disgrace.

But far more disturbing is the apparent message that the IOC has taken from the controversy around the torch run. The approach that any rational democratic nation or institution would have taken this week would be to deeply consider whether running a torch through a city in an ultimately meaningless -- sorry Mr. Rogge -- PR exercise is worth putting people's lives in danger, spending millions of taxpayer dollars, and fanning an already contentious global situation. Any rational institution would have decided that it isn't worth it, that plans should be altered, and the controversial issue directly addressed.

Apparently the lesson that the IOC took from all the controversy is the exact opposite: that controversy can be obfuscated with propaganda and staged stunts, and that a massive military presence can prevent detractors and give the illusion of 'calm.'

How very PRC.

The entire charade yesterday was a perfect microcosm for the situation in Tibet. The illusion of normalcy is conveyed through elaborate PR machinations and military lockdown. The truth of the situation is secondary to the image that is portrayed to the outside world.

This charade isn't news to Tibetans; it has been status quo in Tibet for years. What's news is that the IOC and City of San Francisco have apparently been taking notes, and, in the words of Tibetan activist Tenzin Dorjee: 'We're not changing China, China's changing us.'

That is frightening indeed.

The IOC has indicated that the rest of the international torch run will go through as planned. They are meeting in Beijing today to discuss whether to continue with plans to run the torch through TIbet. I'm not sure if the 'apolitical' IOC fully grasps that they are on the verge of creating an international political crisis. People around the world have shown little tolerance for China's torch run in free nations; the international community will not easily stomach the sight of the torch being paraded through downtown Lhasa accompanied by tanks and PLA army squads. The Governor of the Tibet said yesterday that anyone attempting to disrupt the torch would be dealt with "harshly and with no leniency." Activists groups have indicated that they will hold the IOC responsible for any Tibetan detentions or deaths that occur.

The IOC still has time to rescue itself from this firestorm and prevent an international incident. The way is clear. No Torch through Tibet.

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