NEW DELHI — As a triumphal symbol of its rule over Tibet, China is taking the Olympic torch through the “Roof of the World” to the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, which straddles the Tibetan-Nepalese border. That publicity stunt will only infuse more politics into the Games, already besmirched by China’s pressure to turn the just-concluded international torch relay into a stage-managed, security exercise to pander to its sense of self-esteem at the cost of the Olympic spirit of openness.
Taking the torch to the tallest mountain is China’s way of reinforcing its tall claim on Tibet, which it invaded in 1950 soon after the communist takeover in Beijing.
The blunt fact is that China, not just on Tibet but also on other territories, employs revisionist history to rationalize its assertive claims and ambitions. Not content that Han territorial power today is at its zenith, Beijing still seeks a Greater China.
The state openly fuels territorial nationalism, centered on issues like Tibet and Taiwan, and its claims in the East and South China Seas and on India’s Arunachal Pradesh state — nearly thrice the size of Taiwan. And as the fairy-tale Middle Kingdom, China also claims to be the mother of all civilizations, weaving legend with history to foster an ultra-nationalistic political culture, with its leadership still steeped in opaque and paternalistic mores despite the profound changes sweeping the country.
To prevent any demonstrators sneaking in from the Nepalese side and spoiling its triumphalism atop the 8,848-meter Everest, China has pressured a politically adrift Nepal to police entry routes to the peak and deploy troops up to the 6,500-meter Camp II. Having eliminated the outer buffer with India by annexing Tibet, China now is set to expand its leverage over the inner buffer, Nepal, where the Maoists will lead the next government following elections marred by large-scale intimidation.
China specially constructed a 108-km blacktop road to Everest to take the torch to the peak, unmindful of the environmental impact of such activities in pristine areas. China’s large hydro projects in Tibet — the source of all of Asia’s major rivers except the Ganges — and its reckless exploitation of the plateau’s vast mineral resources already threaten the region’s fragile ecosystem, with Chinese officials admitting average temperatures are rising faster in Tibet than in rest of China.
The plan to take the torch to Tibet is nothing but provocative. After all, the Chinese crackdown in Tibet continues, Tibetan monasteries remain sealed off, hundreds of monks and nuns are in jail, and the vast plateau is still closed to foreigners. Yet such is the Olympics’ politicization that Beijing has extended the torch relay in Tibet into June. After ascending Everest in the coming days, the torch is to travel to Lhasa on June 19. The torch’s three-month route within China, as compared to just a five-week run through the rest of the world, shows that for the Chinese Communist Party, the Olympics are an occasion not only to showcase national achievements under its rule, but also to help win popular legitimacy for its political monopoly.
To some extent, the Olympics have never been separate from politics, especially national power and pride. But until this year, politics had not cast such a big shadow since the Soviet-bloc nations boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in reprisal to the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. As if the relay becoming the most divisive in history is not enough, China is stoking more controversy through the torch’s Everest climb and Tibet run. While continuing brutal repression in Tibet, it has made the Beijing Olympics’ success such a prestige issue that it has offered to meet the Dalai Lama’s “private representative.”
Blending hardline actions with ostensible concessions has been Chinese strategy for a long time. Even as it was readying to invade India in 1962, China was suggesting conciliation.
Today, while stepping up cross-border incursions and encouraging India-bashing by its official organs, with a recent China Institute of International Strategic Studies commentary saying an “arrogant India” wants to be taught another 1962-style lesson, Beijing offers more meaningless border talks with New Delhi.
Clearly, China has appropriated the Olympic torch for its own political agenda. It never tires from lecturing to the world not to interfere in its internal affairs. Still, during the international relay, it kept interfering in the affairs of other states, wanting to be kept in the loop on the local security arrangements and insisting that pro-Tibet demonstrations not be allowed.
It even helped script some counter-demonstrations by young Chinese along the international route. While Chinese embassies arranged buses to take locally resident Chinese to relay sites, the government in Beijing sent batches of young citizens to some key overseas cities to cheer the torchbearers and wave Chinese flags.
Now a pressured Nepal has been forced to restrict expeditions to Everest in the busiest mountaineering season and station soldiers with authority to open fire as “a last resort.” An American mountaineer carrying a pro-Tibet banner has already been ejected from the base camp.
All this is to ensure that not a single protester or Tibetan flag greets the torch on Everest.
Yet the reality, however unpalatable, is that the only occasions in history when Tibet was clearly part of China was under non-Han dynasties — that is, when China itself had been conquered by outsiders: the Mongol Yuan dynasty, from 1279 to 1368, and the Manchu Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. When a dynasty was indeed ethnically Han, such as Ming (founded between the Yang and Qing empires), Tibet had scant connection to Chinese rulers.
For the West, Tibet is largely a symbolic issue. But for India, Tibet’s security and autonomy are tied to its well-being.
Indeed, no event in the 20th century more adversely altered India’s security calculus than the fall of Tibet, which brought Han forces to the Indian frontiers for the first time in history. Until the 1962 Chinese aggression, India had faced invading armies only from the northwestern direction of the Khyber Pass.
Now India is compelled to mass forces along its once-open and idyllic Himalayan frontiers, as China persists with its attempts to nibble at Indian territory. Add to this picture China’s refusal to clarify the frontline with India, its frenetic build up of military capabilities in Tibet, and its latent threat to fashion water as a political weapon against India by damming rivers upstream.
Autocrats, especially those reared in a secretive and suspicious culture, tend to act in ways that ultimately boomerang. Who would have thought two months ago that Tibet would flare up and come to the center of world attention, tormenting China internally, bruising its international image and casting a pall over the Beijing Olympics? The belief was that the weapon of repression was working well there. Many had already labeled Tibet a lost cause, not realizing that history tends to wreak vengeance on artificially created empires.
An Olympic torch relay paradoxically carrying the theme “Journey of Harmony,” has helped shine a spotlight on China’s human rights record and the manner ultranationalism has become the legitimating credo of the world’s longest surviving autocracy.
The Chinese regime’s troubles indeed may only be beginning. After the Everest climb could come a fall.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”