For some years, China's boom and the war on terror have overridden human rights concerns.
China billed the Olympic torch relay as its strut onto the world stage. Instead, the torch's handlers left Europe in a mad dash, handing off to San Francisco Tuesday a global lightning rod for protests.
Critics of the Chinese government have been waiting for years for just such a headline moment. It's grown harder with China's booming economy and the war on terror, they say, to get Western governments to pressure Beijing on human rights.
Now, the pent-up frustrations are spilling with increasing intensity along the torch route, forcing a meeting of the International Olympic Committee later this week to decide whether to discontinue the relay. Meanwhile, calls are growing on Western leaders to skip the opening ceremonies – including, on Monday, from presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For human rights activists, the debate over the Games holds the possibility of a return to more critical, balanced engagement with Beijing. China experts warn, however, that Western officials should not underestimate how sensitive China will be to a slight on the torch.
"The translation of the event there [in China] is that certain hostile forces abroad are bound and determined to damage the face of the Chinese people," says David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. "No Chinese leader is going to want to look weak in the face of humiliation. You can just go to the bank on that."
Monday's image of a protester accosting a torch-bearer in a wheelchair in Paris, he and others warn, could become the inverse of the iconic image of a Tiananmen protester staring down the tank. It could result in stirring popular nationalism and drawing Chinese people closer to their government, he says.
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