Take this quiz:
You are the leader of a prominent country. Your nation is hosting the Olympic games. Your nation’s prestige is on the world stage. But, you have a region that is politically restive. While this region has been granted autonomy, at least on paper, there are some who are agitating for further political freedoms. Your advisors want your decision on how to handle these people some label as separatists. Do you:
a. viciously put them down by calling in the army, imposing virtual martial law, detaining or forcibly disappearing thousands, killing hundreds, torturing many, and cutting off the region to foreign journalists; or
b. allow them a referendum.
If you answered (a) you are the Chinese Communist party of China, with Tibet, leading up to the 2008 Olympic games. If you answered (b) you are the democratic government of the United Kingdom, with Scotland, leading up to the 2012 Olympic games.
(Note: The regional government of Scotland intends to hold a public referendum on the issue of independence from the United Kingdom in the fall of 2014. This follows a successful referendum in 1997 that devolved some powers to local Scottish governments.)
I bring up this comparison today for two reasons:
- Today is March 14, the fourth anniversary of the riot in Lhasa, the one day of violence amidst the wide-scale and almost entirely peaceful wave of protests across the Tibetan plateau. The Chinese call it the “3.14 incident” as part of their propaganda efforts to portray the Tibetan protests as a violent insurgency. Ten days later the Olympic torch relay began its extravagant global 4.5 month journey, and was the scene of many protests of Chinese behavior in Tibet. By contrast, the British torch relay is planned as a modest two-plus month affair, touring only the UK (with a stop in Dublin).
- Yesterday and today, UK Prime Minister David Cameron is on an official visit in Washington, including a state dinner with President Obama. I see no protests in the streets. They may talk Scotland, but I doubt it; Obama knows Cameron’s government isn’t violating any international laws there. Cameron may invite Obama to the opening ceremony, but maybe not. The British seem confident enough about their international standing without a checklist of world leaders at the London Olympics.
Admittedly, there isn’t much analytical depth to this comparison. But it may be worth taking a moment to reflect on what the different approaches by the UK government and the Chinese government to the Olympics say about each country’s political systems.
China sees itself as a rising power, with its growing economy and its accelerating soft power expansion. But its nationalistic approach to the Beijing Olympics, not to mention its strenuous efforts to stamp out the slightest hint of Tibetan political identity, reveal it as a insecure, paranoid nation.
The United Kingdom remains an economic power, although it lost its global empire long ago. Its approach to the London Olympics, which appears to express a relatively normal level of national pride and celebration, even with the prospect of secession hanging over them, and even with the gloom of the European economic crisis, reveals it as a secure, self-confident nation.
Is it any coincidence that the former is a one-party authoritarian state and the latter is a multi-party democracy?
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was questions at the National People’s Congress yesterday. I would have loved for someone to have been asked him these questions:
- Why do you think no one is planning to disrupt the London Olympic torch relay?
- Are Chinese athletes considering any special measures to help them deal with the clean air in London?
- Do you think the people of Scotland have the right to self-determination?
- Should the central government in London stop the expected Scottish referendum in 2014?
- Will news of the Scottish referendum be allowed in China or blocked by censors, and why?