Monday, April 21, 2008

The Olympic Torch, another embarrassment for America

We had a disturbing event take place here in San Francisco a week or so ago. Athletes were supposed to carry the Olympic torch along the waterfront in view of several thousand cheering fans. San Francisco is the only designated stop for the torch in the United States for the ‘08 Olympic Games so the city buzzed with excitement. But as the time drew near, it became evident that a few hundred protesters, half carrying “Free Tibet” signs and the other half carrying pro-China signs, threatened to disrupt the proceedings. Mayor Gavin Newsom, fearing violence between the two groups, ordered a last minute route change and the torch made its way down Bay Street and up Van Ness Avenue, about two miles away from where the protesters and the fans were gathered.
The issue for me is that the several thousand fans, who sat waiting for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the torch being carried through their city streets, were robbed of that opportunity by a few hundred hooligans. The whole fiasco turned into what I believe is yet another embarrassment for America.
I don’t blame the mayor for changing the route. It is his job to insure the safety of the city’s population and maintain order, and what he did avoided a potentially dangerous situation. I applaud his move. And I am an advocate of free speech. Those protesters on both sides of the issue have every right to peacefully voice their opinions. What I don’t agree with is people using the Olympic Games as a platform to voice political views, thus tarnishing the experience for everyone else. I was always told that the Olympic Games were above politics, and I believe that they should be. But it seems that some people can’t resist the opportunity to grab a few media soundbytes.
I’m not saying that the people of Tibet have not suffered under the rule of China. The atrocities of the Chinese government are well document, not only in Tibet but all over China. And this latest crackdown where many monks have lost their lives and hundred, perhaps thousands, of others imprisoned, leaves the whole world with a bitter taste. Human rights violations in China must be dealt with, but Washington, not the Olympic Games, is the place to do that. China’s economic growth is dependent upon American consumers. People who want to do something about China’s human rights atrocities need to apply pressure on members of our government, both on a local and national level. Make your voice heard in the halls of government, not on the streets of San Francisco.
Being a life-long Buddhist, I have made two pilgrimages to Tibet over the last ten years and visited some of the most holy sites in and around Lhasa, Tibet, including the Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lama and the seat of government before the Chinese overthrow. I saw no sign of religious repression. People went about their business, openly prayed and meditated at the temples and on the streets, carried on with their traditions and their culture.
What I did see were thousands of Han Chinese moving into and around Lhasa, buying property, opening businesses, bringing in needed farm machinery and modernization. The Han Chinese have drastically lifted the standard of living and sanitary conditions in Tibetan cites. From my point of view, as one who has spent time there, what the Han Chinese are doing today is a good thing, for themselves and all people of Tibet.
The issue in my opinion, is not whether China should give up Tibet, which they clearly has no intention of doing, but whether the world can apply enough pressure to the Chinese government that they begin to treat all Chinese people with justice and dignity.
I can’t help wondering if these protesters in San Francisco were more interested in getting media coverage than actually doing something constructive to help. And in the case of the Olympic torch, they ended up disappointing thousands of anxious well-wishers.

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