The Chinese Panda Ambles into an Olympic Thicket

China’s relentless campaign to win the 2008 Olympics, to be held next year in Beijing, is starting to substantiate the old cliché that you should be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

If any thing, alarm in Beijing over the games is actually starting to change the way it practices diplomacy. China’s style has been to stay out of internal politics and deal with the government in power, whatever its misdeeds. But the decision on May 10 to appoint China’s first -ever special envoy to Africa specifically to address the issue of Darfur in Sudan, a major source of energy imports to China, is the latest sign that China is not immune to international pressure and that the Olympics are a case in point.

US politicians, actors, human rights activists and others have all called on Beijing to do more about the crisis in Darfur or risk tarnishing the Olympics. Beijing buys two-thirds of Sudan’s oil and is a major investor in developing the country’s oil reserves.

Beijing sees the attacks on it as a supporter of the Sudanese government as one of many threats, foreign and domestic, related to the Olympics. On May 18, police put under house arrest a prominent AIDS activist to prevent him traveling to Europe and told him that anyone who ruined the games would be “ground up” by the state.

The term “Genocide Olympics” to characterize the Beijing games was coined by the actress Mia Farrow, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, in a stinging Wall Street Journal editorial last March and it has since become part of the political vocabulary, popping up in newspaper editorials and a letter released by more than 100 US congressmen on May 9 demanding that Beijing act on Sudan. The term has been picked up on hundreds of websites and blogs, putting a negative spin on China’s golden moment.

China very much regards the games as a sign of its emergence on the world stage and acceptance as a major power, much as the Japanese did in 1964 and the South Koreans in 1988. The games enjoy wide support among the Chinese public, which sees them as a source of national pride. But there may be a cautionary tale for Beijing in South Korea’s experience. A year before the games arrived, then-dictator Chun Doo Hwan saw himself booted out of office by a popular uprising he was unable to stop precisely because he was told that the use of military force against protesters would result on the games being cancelled.

No one expects that to happen in China, but Beijing’s authoritarian rulers are in the unusual predicament of having to respond to public pressure. Their nightmare is that the tragedy of Darfur, where 200,000-400,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced, will intensify over the next 15 months and that, as Sudan’s most important ally, China will be blamed and enraged public opinion abroad will force governments to boycott the games. That possibility was raised in a televised debate by French Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal – but, fortunately for Beijing, she lost to Nicholas Sarkozy.

The appointment of Liu Guijin, the former ambassador to South Africa and Zimbabwe for 15 years, is the latest sign of Beijing’s eagerness to address foreign concerns. In April, it sent a senior official, Zhai Jun, to Sudan to press the government to accept a U.N. peacekeeping force. He even visited three refugee camps in Darfur, believed to be a first by a high-ranking Chinese diplomat.

Beijing’s careful non-intervention in the internal affairs of others has earned it friends and lucrative commercial contracts in a wide variety of pariah countries at odds with the west – the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe and Sudan. It is the biggest foreign investor in Sudan, bought two thirds of its oil – worth US$2.9 billion – last year and sells it arms and military aircraft.

The Sudan controversy is one of many threats to the games. Lobby groups on a number issues, including Tibet and human rights, also have called for a boycott. So far these groups have failed to persuade governments or national sporting associations to skip the games. But they are eagerly waiting for an event in China, such as police killings of protestors, as the next opportunity to turn up the pressure.

There is also concern in Beijing that Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian and his government may use the pre-Olympic window as an opportunity to move closer to formal independence, betting that Beijing will not dare to use force against him.

The Beijing Olympic Committee is only too aware of these threats. Its deputy secretary-general Zhang Shuyuan told a meeting earlier in May that the Olympics faced a major security risk, external and internal.

These include foreign groups planning to disrupt the event, potential risks from relations with Japan, the North Korean nuclear program, disputes in the South China Sea, Taiwan, natural disasters, epidemics, public security and terrorism, he said. The committee has set up a department to run a security check on every athlete, coach and judge who will take part and will refuse a visa to anyone suspicious, he said. The 13 Olympic venues have their own security teams, which are preparing for all eventualities. The route to be followed by the Olympic torch is also a priority, to ensure that there is no disruption.

“From start to finish, we should make the maintenance of stability in the capital our first political task,” Beijing party chief Liu Qi told the city’s 10th party congress on May 17.