By: Our Correspondent

china-flagTo the
surprise and irritation of the Beijing government, China is finding
that the Olympic torch relay has been a propaganda failure not just
in the west but in much of Asia as well.

The large
and unruly demonstrations with which pro-Tibet and assorted other
demonstrators greeted the torch in London, Paris and elsewhere have
not happened here. But many in Asia have been dismayed at what is
regarded more as a manifestation of Chinese triumphalism than a
symbol of the international brotherhood of sport. Sympathy that China
might have gained in Asia from the overtly anti-China sentiments and
hypocritical moralizing in the West were more than nullified by what
happened on the ground.

The relay
has not only been given far more publicity than prior to any previous
Olympics but China has made the attendance of certain foreign
political leaders a litmus test of “friendship.” The
opening ceremonies of the two previous Olympics, in Athens and
Sydney, were showy but lacked any overt political content and were
certainly not “must attend” occasions for presidents and
prime ministers.

In India,
one the largest-ever security operations was needed to protect the
torch, and even then the route had to be shortened. India never wins
many medals at the Olympics and so is expected to be further
irritated with China’s crowing about its success when the games
finally begin in August. Meanwhile India is being further infuriated
by Beijing’s decision to take the torch to the top of Mount
Everest, which Delhi regards as a symbol of its control of Tibet.

The
distinguished foreign affairs columnist Brahma Chellaney wrote in the
The Times of India that this was a publicity stunt which “will
only infuse more politics into the games already tainted by the
manner China’s pressure helped turn the just-concluded
international torch relay into a stage-managed security exercise
everywhere to pander to its self-esteem at the cost of the Olympic
spirit of openness.”

In South
Korea, where there is normally scant innate hostility to China, the
thuggish behavior of thousands of Chinese students appalled a
population for whom the right to dissent and protest are now deeply
ingrained. Television footage showed the Chinese “patriotic”
students attacking Koreans demonstrating against the oppression in
Tibet and China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees.
This comes at a time when, despite close economic ties, Koreans are
smarting at Beijing’s efforts to incorporate Korean history
into their own. There were also clashes in Japan between Chinese
students and local protesters and elsewhere in Asia there was little
celebration. Thailand delivered massive police protection and threats
of deportation should Tibetan exiles cause trouble. Indonesia kept
the whole torch ceremony private.

In fitting
contrast to events in Seoul and elsewhere in Asia, the torch had a
trouble-free passage in North Korea, almost the only place where it
did. Vietnam rounded up known anti-China voices before the torch’s
arrival and the government’s tight political grip ensured that
there was no trouble. However, China’s games aggrandizement did
remind many Vietnamese not only of historical enmity but of China’s
current claims to the Spratly islands and to seabed resources off the
coast of Vietnam. Some saw the local torch-bearers as unpatriotic by
furthering Chinese interests.

China’s
banging of the nationalist drum was also conspicuous in Hong Kong,
providing a contrast between the territory’s autonomous
identity with Beijing’s use of the games to stimulate patriotic
One-Country fervor at the expense of the Two-Systems status which has
enabled the territory to enjoy separate representation at the
Olympics.

Not
content with welcoming the torch as a symbol of international sport,
the government and a clutch of “patriotic” organizations
insisted on identifying the torch relay with red, the color of the
national flag created by the Communist party when it came to power.
Citizens were urged to wear red on the day of the relay and millions
of red patriotic stickers were distributed. Government workers were
“encouraged” to wear red and to attend.

In the
event, the majority of Hong Kong people seemed to be cool to the
whole affair. While wishing the Olympics well, few seemed inclined to
join the celebrations. Random samples of people in the streets
suggested that fewer than than 10 percent followed the “wear
red” advice and many of those had been given T-shirts or
stickers by employers seeking to be seen to be “patriotic”.

The
cheering crowds which greeted the torch at various locations were
composed largely of children let out of school for the occasion and
provided with flags to wave. In addition there was an influx of
putonghua-speaking mainlanders who waved huge patriotic banners along
the torch route. Pro-Beijing political figures and members of the
business elite were heavily represented among the torch bearers, with
sportsmen taking a minority role and opposition politicians being
excluded altogether.

The future
of Hong Kong’s representation at the games may also have been
brought into question by the criteria for membership of the Hong Kong
team. Only Chinese nationals are eligible, rather than by birth or
residence, the criteria for representation at many other sports and
used by other dependent-territory Olympic teams. If Hong Kong’s
tens of thousands of locally-born Indians, Filipinos and others are
to be excluded while Chinese nationals who have lived there only a
short time are chosen, it may be well to ask why Hong Kong is given
separate status from China. Some see the current criteria as overt
racism disguised as legitimate nationalism.

Overall,
the torch relay seems to have awakened Asian sensibilities to China’s
rise in a way that no statistics or speeches could have done. Pride
at Asian success and the opportunities for trade an investment that
China offers may have peaked, and the Olympic torch appears to have
become more a symbol of China’s power than of international
brotherhood.