On the day that the Olympic torch – or, as Beijing calls it, "the sacred flame" – went into hiding in a San Francisco warehouse, Beijing’s second in command in Tibet, Qiangba Puncog, held a press conference. He was talking against the background of another news management failure: the appearance of a group of monks at the lovely and historic Labrang monastery in Gansu, bearing a Tibetan flag to remind a visiting press party that this was another propaganda exercise.
Puncog joined the Communist party in the cultural revolution, and his political attitudes do not seem to have progressed much. He epitomises the policies that have helped to generate this perfect storm of bad publicity for China. Of his fellow Tibetans he observed, in a phrase that would not have shamed a recalcitrant 19th-century imperialist, "I believe Tibetans are a good, simple people who know how to be grateful". And in the event of any of these humble, grateful people disrupting the torch relay through Tibet, he promised: "They will be dealt with severely." As western political leaders glumly contemplated their August diaries, conscious that there were no good options, Beijing’s putative public relations consultants must have been reaching for the hemlock.
Since the unrest in Tibet began, everything Beijing has done and said has reinforced its critics’ case. The foreign press is accused, in strident terms, of lying, while its capacity to report directly is cut off by Beijing. Behind a security cordon, overwhelming force has been brought to bear. Precisely how it is being used we do not know, but when an authority with a violent past reaches for a stick and slams the door shut, there is little reason to be sanguine.
As the trouble spread last month to the Tibetan areas of Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai, convoys of trucks carrying military police fanned out across the Tibetan plateau. The faces in the trucks looked young, but the fixed bayonets leaning against the tailboards spoke of their seriousness of purpose.
No foreign visitor could testify directly to the result because the provincial foreign affairs bureaux were already at work, combing through the hotels for foreigners who were to be swept back to the cities, where they would be blind to further trouble or reprisals. Chinese migrants sat in flyblown restaurants watching the official story on television, scenes of riot on a loop, played and replayed, cursing Tibetans for what viewers had been told was unprovoked violence against hardworking Chinese migrants. Tibetans kept their distance, wary of revenge attacks.
The exercise was reminiscent of China’s recent, closed, dogmatic past, when all citizens were obliged to subscribe to the official version of events, however much they might privately dissent. A dictatorship can oblige this acceptance of a single narrative as the price of living unmolested in the state, but it only works if the outside world, with its diverse point of view and different stories, is kept at bay. The method, though, is incompatible in a society open to the outside world, as China now wishes to be.
The story of China in the past month is tragic on many levels. Prepared to fling open the doors to show off its best furniture and fashionable new clothes, official China is snarling in a corner instead, its confident image shredded by the real-time street theatre of London, Paris and San Francisco.
The issue is no longer confined to Tibet. Now it is about the nature of China’s rise, and a leadership capable of misreading the reactions of others so catastrophically. It is revealed as a regime that clings to symbolic politics, without realising that symbols carry different messages and, in the wider world, nobody can monopolise how they are read. What is now at risk is not only the success of the Olympics, but the direction of Chinese politics. This matters to us all, so here, at no charge and with respect, are some suggestions.
Firstly, stop digging. The torch relay was introduced at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a triumphalist exercise. Proposing to run the longest relay ever, and including Taiwan and Tibet, was bound to open Beijing to the charge of exploiting an international sporting symbol for a nationalist agenda. At this point, the more security the torch needs, the more negative the message.
Secondly, get some honest advice and listen to it. In intolerant, top-down systems, subordinates tell the boss what they think he wants to hear. By the time the boss discovers the deception, the damage has been done. It may be painful to admit errors in public, but it would have a positive effect. In grown-up systems, the humbling of politicians is something in which the people can take pride, rather than feel as a national humiliation.
Thirdly, it’s time to take the initiative back, sit down for talks with the Dalai Lama and take a hard look at China’s record in Tibet. To insist that the Dalai Lama is single-handedly responsible for the failure of China’s policies in Tibet just makes Beijing look ridiculous internationally and does nothing to resolve the crisis. In the long run the choice is between more decades of repression and rebellion, and the chance of a constructive settlement that offers long-term stability for China and cultural survival for Tibet. For the past 50 years Chinese policy in Tibet has provoked intermittent uprisings. It is time to draw the right lessons.
When China signed up for the Olympics, it promised to improve human rights and press freedom, as well as to clean up the air and provide impeccable organisation. There have been heroic efforts on air quality, and nobody doubts the logistics or the shining new venues. But on human rights Beijing has fallen back on repression and has thrown away the chance to argue, with justice, that China has made considerable progress in building a legal state, in personal freedoms and in creating prosperity. Now those achievements have been sidelined by a torch that cannot venture on to the streets without an armed escort.
There is still a choice to be made, and a change of policy is by far the best decision. So far, Beijing has reached for the tattered flag of nationalism. The official story blames China’s enemies; that line may convince many – even most – Chinese, but if the end of the story is to force 1.3 billion people back into a position of antagonism towards the outside world, when the strategy for the past 15 years has been to open up, what will have been gained?