In 2001, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 summer games to Beijing, a move that drew criticism, as it should have. The Chinese government has an abysmal record for human rights, does not respect free speech or other civil liberties and represses dissenters. Some hoped that giving Beijing the games would force the Chinese government to have more respect for human rights. This has not happened. Because of this, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has decided to skip the opening ceremonies, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy may choose to skip them as well. China’s rite of passage has been tainted and the games have not even begun.

Events at Monday’s torch relay in Paris, in particular, made me wonder what the Chinese government and relay organizers were thinking. Did they think that supporters of human rights and civil liberties would stay at home so China’s super sweet celebration could proceed without disruption? How could demonstrators from pro-Tibet movements, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and many other groups not seize such a perfect opportunity to embarass? The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing will be the perfect stage for anyone who has problems with the Chinese government to make a scene while the world, excluding China, watches.

Demonstrators in Paris managed to extinguish the torch multiple times, which prompted the organizers to put the torch inside a bus. The torch did not even complete the route that it had originally been planned to take – it was cut short because the organizers wanted to avoid further embarassment. Their altering the route meant that they did not have to pass city hall and a giant banner that proclaimed “Paris Defends Human Rights Everywhere in the World,” The New York Times reported. The Chinese government’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, offered blatantly false accounts of the relay through Paris that attempted to make the situation look not as bad, as is only possible in a country where the government controls the press and bombards its citizens with propaganda and lies.

An article that appeared in the People’s Daily on Tuesday reported that the Olympic torch was never extinguished in Paris. “The reports by foreign media are false in claiming that the Olympic torch was forced to be extinguished during its relay in Paris,” the article quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu as having said. The People’s Daily also referred to the demonstrators collectively as “Tibetan separatists” and said that they were “annoying.” Another article in the People’s Daily contradicted the spokesman, reporting that “Due to safety reasons, the relay team had to extinguish the flame twice and put the torch onto the bus.”

The Chinese government may have control over the information that reaches its own people, but it has no control over the press abroad. Will it even be able to maintain its control over the flow of information to its own people when thousands of foreign journalists descend on Beijing to cover the games?

Le Monde, a French newspaper, cited an article in the People’s Daily that called the botched relay “a shame for Paris and France.” I completely disagree with the People’s Daily’s and, by extension, the Chinese government’s analysis of what happened in Paris. Monday’s events reflect poorly on China, not France and the Paris Police. France is a liberal democracy that does not violently squash public displays of dissent. Knowing this potential for embarassment, the Chinese government should not have chosen to run the relay in France or, for that, any other free country.

Though I read various accounts of the debacles in Paris, I did not realize how pathetic the relay was until I saw video footage. Two columns of police vans, no fewer than 50 vehicles and an additional column of police cars and motorcycles escorted a convoy of buses, one of which had a crew of track-suited runners and a band of police officers around it. An even larger cavalcade of police vehicles trailed the buses. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation – how many heads of state would have such an inordinate escort? — but I could not. We may be able to laugh without feeling guilty during one of the next torch relays in San Francisco, known for its activism.

San Francisco will most likely embarass China even more. Demonstrators have already unfurled Tibetan flags and other banners from the Golden Gate Bridge and scuffled with each other and the police, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. San Franciscans are a creative bunch, so we can expect unusual forms of demonstration. Nude runners, including a naked human torch, plan to follow the torch on Wednesday, The New York Times reported. I doubt that the Chinese government appreciates such starkness, but it does not have the authority to inhibit San Franciscans, Athenians, Londoners, Parisians or any other free people in a free country.

Fleming is a member of the class of 2010.

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