BEIJING - The Olympic flame, symbol of international harmony, skulked into town March 31 like a fugitive - or like a US official dropping in on Iraq: all secrecy, security, and evasive maneuvers. Two days before the torch arrived in China from Greece, the Public Security Bureau abruptly demanded that all reporters planning to cover the arrival ceremony on Tian'anmen Square submit a special application by fax. (The Chinese bureaucracy, literal-minded about the concept of a paper trail, has a deep devotion to the fax machine.)
Having been unable to get to a fax line in time, I settled for watching the torch celebration on TV that day - only to discover that it was already over. The authorities had switched the ceremony from starting at noon to ending at noon. The flame had fled, heading for Kazakhstan.
In the span of a few weeks, as international protest movements have grown louder and more pointed, the mood around the Olympics has notably changed. A source of undiluted pride has become a source of insecurity, even in the heart of the capital.
In the lobby of Beijing's Olympic Tower, a preserved newspaper commemorates the International Olympic Committee's 2001 decision to award the 2008 Games to the city: "China Won," the headline exults, in giant characters. "Beijing Won. We Won." With four months to go till the opening ceremony, though, the results of that victory look less like a triumph for the host.
China supposed that being invited to host the Olympics, over objections from human rights groups and others at the time, conferred a degree of international respectability. But the approach of the Games has become a new opportunity for people around the world to assail China for its failings. China's turn in the spotlight has so far demonstrated one skill of a mature global power that it has yet to master: the ability to contend with opposing viewpoints. China's fear of embarrassment is itself turning into an embarrassment.
It's hard to imagine another member of the United Nations Security Council, for instance, feeling threatened by Bjork. But when the big-voiced Icelandic pixie shouted "Tibet! Tibet!" from the concert stage in Shanghai - nearly two weeks before any hint of the violence that would roil Lhasa - the official Xinhua news agency reported that the Ministry of Culture would "investigate" her performance, which had "not only broken Chinese laws and regulations and hurt the feeling of Chinese people, but also went against the professional code of an artist."
China is one of the very small number of places on the planet where the political impulses of rock musicians are taken seriously by politicians. Last year, when Sonic Youth played Beijing, the group's handpicked opening act, the local Carsick Cars, mysteriously failed to appear. The best guess afterward was that the government had blocked the performance as an oblique act of retaliation against Sonic Youth for having appeared in a Free Tibet concert.
And before Bjork and Tibet, it was Steven Spielberg and Darfur - the director renouncing his role as an artistic consultant to the opening and closing ceremonies after Mia Farrow publicly lobbied him not to contribute to what Darfur activists have dubbed the "Genocide Olympics." When the Olympic torch was kindled in Greece, it was Reporters Without Borders unfurling a banner to denounce China's suppression of the press. (China promptly suppressed domestic coverage of the protest.)
At the news conference in March to announce the schedule and route of the Olympic torch, Beijing Olympic organizing committee executive vice president Jiang Xiaoyu said that any protests around the relay would be "totally against the spirit of the slogan of the 29th Olympic Games torch relay, which is 'Journey of Harmony.' "
"These activities will not win the hearts and minds of people, and therefore are doomed to failure," Jiang said.
Undermining the official message of harmony is the basic point of the various protest movements. But Jiang's aggrieved innocence didn't seem completely unreasonable. On the international stage, China is experiencing something oddly akin to one of its own historical episodes, such as the Hundred Flowers Movement - when Mao invited the people to criticize the government, then purged the critics as counterrevolutionaries.
It was in 2001 that the IOC accepted China as an Olympic host. And now, seven years later, with the stadiums built and the landscaping going in around them, the People's Republic is suddenly accused of being unacceptable - lumped in with Soviet Moscow in 1980, or Nazi Berlin in 1936.
What changed? Certainly not the Tibet policy. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, one year before the Moscow Games, so the Olympic boycotters then were responding to a new event. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, fled Tibet in 1959. Whatever reforms China promised the IOC when it bid for the Games, it was never offering to restore him to the throne. Nor was it planning to hold democratic multiparty elections or to declare peace with Taiwan. If those had been deal breakers, the 2008 Olympics could have gone to Toronto.
As it happens, relations with Taiwan have turned almost cordial, with the Communists welcoming last month's electoral victory by the Kuomintang, their historic mortal enemies. Beijing's air, though still polluted, is dramatically cleaner than it was two or three years ago. After Spielberg's withdrawal, there were even hints at a greater willingness by China to press Sudan, its close trading partner, to end the bloodshed in Darfur.
But the People's Republic makes an irresistible villain in the ongoing international dramas, for both fair and unfair reasons. To old-line Cold Warriors, it is an unrepentant godless Communist dictatorship; to the post-Cold War left, it is a cradle for unchecked global capitalism at its most abusive. It is taking manufacturing jobs from the Western working class and flouting the ethical and environmental values of the intellectual class. It still handles dissent by locking up dissenters. It is hostile to freedom of the press, which guarantees it bad press.
Seen from inside the country, the coverage can look tendentious or incomplete. A recent
Or, on a weightier subject, the Western press keeps referring to what happened in Tibet last month as "demonstrations," which is a bit like saying there were demonstrations in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict. Chinese viewers, given coverage of burned-out Han Chinese stores and the Han Chinese death toll, have concluded that the outside media are in the tank for rioting Tibetan thugs.
But the sense of Chinese grievance doesn't carry very well beyond China's borders. As the various Olympic pressure campaigns gain strength, China is reacting by emphasizing its worst points - acting the part of the repressive, self-righteous, and unanswerable power. It's as if despite the five-star hotels and black Audis and Versace retail space, all the trappings of engagement with the decadent West, the authorities still harbor the revolutionary instinct to heighten the contradictions. A minor and symbolic confrontation becomes an opportunity to identify and isolate one's foes, and to engage them in pitched battle.
So when the Dalai Lama rejected the idea of independence and lamented the violence in Lhasa, China denounced him as the secret instigator of the trouble - thereby closing any available rift between Tibetan moderates and radicals. With that, any chance of making the Tibet issue fade away was lost.
With every show of control, China looks weaker and more fearful, if not ludicrous. The authorities are currently saying they will forbid live broadcasts from Tian'anmen Square, the city's central landmark, during the Olympics. When the Los Angeles Dodgers played the San Diego Padres in an exhibition game here last month, the Public Security Bureau banned a pack of Cub Scouts from taking the field, out of concern that they might somehow stage a protest about Tibet.
Actual bad news has been handled even worse. During the Lhasa crisis, online news stories were cut off in midsentence as they loaded ("Monks from the Ramoche Temple, a short . . ."). When I tried to check the date of the Dalai Lama's exile, a few paragraphs ago, my Web browser was blocked.
This is everything the Olympic protesters could hope for. Their various causes may not add up to a coherent case against China - the Darfur and Tibet movements, for instance, are based on more or less opposite assumptions about China's willingness to do good - but as long as China acts like it's in the wrong, they'll be in the right.
And the gulf between China's own perceptions and those of the rest of the world will keep widening. On March 28, I picked up a copy of China Daily, the state-run English-language newspaper. A front-page headline offered a gesture at reconciliation - a remarkably short-armed gesture.
"Tibetans also among riot victims," it said.
Tom Scocca is a writer in Beijing.