In London, a man with a fire extinguisher hurled himself at a torchbearer using what a friend gleefully describes as a “rugby tackle.” In Paris, the torch’s omnipresent security guards—members of the Sacred Flame Protection Unit of the Chinese People’s Armed Police, the same paramilitaries who put down riots in Tibet—had to extinguish the flame themselves to prevent protesters from doing so first. In San Francisco, the torch disappeared, reappeared, changed routes, and then vanished altogether. City officials explained that they had moved their “farewell to the torch” ceremony to a “private” location in order to avoid demonstrations.
In other words, the ceremony was canceled. Score one for the protesters! And welcome to the latest Olympic sport: “put out the torch”—a game being followed, at least in my part of the world, with enormous enthusiasm. Over dinner in Warsaw, Poland, visitors from London brag about “their” protesters. Over breakfast in Berlin, Germans can read accounts of the ceremony’s modern origins: It seems Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s filmmaker, invented the torch relay for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then deployed it with “terrifying mastery,” according to Die Welt, in her film Olympia.
What a disappointment this must all be for the China Daily, the English-language organ of the Chinese Communist Party, which last month bragged that the 2008 torch relay “will traverse the longest distance, cover the greatest area and include the largest number of people” since this ancient Greek custom was invented by the Nazis in 1936. After the chaos in Paris, the same newspaper was reduced to spluttering at the French press, the French people, and French culture itself: “Pride and prejudice,” the newspaper intoned, have “cast a shadow on this ancient civilization.”
How utterly predictable. Even without the recent riots in Tibet, anything as ludicrous as a 130-day, 85,000-mile torch relay was going to attract a healthy dose of negative attention. Why does the thing have to go to so many cities, after all? Why does it need to go through Tibet? Why is it surrounded by track-suited thugs? Why does it travel in a customized jumbo jet? Wasn’t this supposed to be a relay? And what is the symbolic significance of a battery-operated chemical flame, anyway? What does it have to do with athletes or world peace? Any ceremony of such profound inauthenticity—the Chinese are calling it the “journey of harmony”—deserves to be disharmoniously disrupted as often as possible.
It’s true that the Greeks put on a parallel extravaganza four years ago. Previously, it had traveled only between Athens and the Olympic city or within the Olympic country. But the Greeks are a small nation with only local enemies. China is a totalitarian empire with many enemies and should know better than to stage a deliberately provocative, easily disrupted event like this one.
But clearly the Chinese did not know better. Their confused, unprepared official reaction has wavered between outright dishonesty—”all Torch Relay cities have given strong support for the event”—and incoherent anger. Chinese bloggers apparently favor the latter. One posted a photograph of an anti-torch protester, along with the words, “Remember him … he’ll die a terrible death.”
In fact, for all of their wealth and sophistication, China’s leaders still have an extremely crude understanding of global media—you can’t force the world’s press to celebrate “harmony,” for goodness’ sake—and of global politics. Despite his earlier enthusiasm, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has now announced he won’t attend the opening ceremonies in Beijing: The photographs of Chinese paramilitaries pouring out of his Downing Street residence have made it politically impossible.
Inevitably, “wiser heads” and old China hands will now call upon the world’s press and the world’s politicians to calm down, avoid boycotts, and leave the torch alone so the games can go on and China’s nationalist passion can cool down. Right this very minute, I’m sure someone is whispering in George Bush’s ear, urging him not to skip the Olympics, not to offend the Chinese, not to follow Brown’s example.
I hope he doesn’t listen. Americans, Brits, Russians, and indeed the citizens of many large nations are forced to think all of the time about how their actions are perceived abroad. Why shouldn’t the Chinese do so, too? They wanted to use the Olympics to trumpet their success, but there is a price to be paid for those few weeks at the center of global attention. Of course, no one believes that “Free Tibet” signs on the Golden Gate Bridge will truly liberate Tibet, and the absence of the U.S. president from some horrifically overchoreographed ceremony in Beijing won’t bring democracy to the Middle Kingdom. But it will show some of the Chinese people what some of the world thinks of their repressive system—and quite right, too.