Through rerouting and improvisation, they managed to run the Olympic torch through some of San Francisco’s streets, if not the streets along the Embarcadero as originally planned.
The reason, of course, was the multiplicity of protesters against various aspects of Chinese policy — its recent brutal crackdown in Tibet, its support of the regime in Darfur, its support of the repressive regime in Burma-Myanmar, its gross pollution, and its intolerance of internal dissent, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and free media.
The situation in San Francisco was complicated by the fact that the city’s Chinatown has the largest number of ethnic Chinese people in any one city outside of China itself, many of whom are pleased and proud that Beijing is hosting the Olympics this year and eager to support the games and cheer on the torch runners.
The potential for clashes, even though all parties had promised to keep their expressions of protest or support non-violent, was daunting enough to worry authorities, especially following on incidents of violence earlier in London and Paris.
There are almost too many ironies to count.
The torch, which is supposed to be a symbol of brotherly/sisterly amicable competition and striving for excellence, had to be surrounded by phalanxes of police and other bodyguards in a city and a country supposed to be the freest and most tolerant on earth.
To hold what was supposed to be a public celebration, the police chose streets where almost nobody was.
Perhaps it’s just as well. The Olympics were never quite the celebration of disinterested idealism they are cracked up to be (even in their ancient Greek manifestation), given their frequent use for political ends, be it Hitler’s Germany in 1936 or the Munich massacre in 1972.
Granting the games to the world’s largest politically totalitarian power, as if the five rings of the Olympic flag could or might magically induce the country to reform at least some of its more obnoxious practices was an act of incredible naïveté.
There’s something delicious in seeing foolishness and hubris laid low by a few hundred or even a few thousand demonstrators.
While it is marvelous to see so many protests against Chinese policies — did we mention forcibly clearing poor people, petty criminals and the few vocal dissidents out of Beijing before the games start in August so as to give the appearance of a cleaner, brighter city with no troublemakers? — they are unlikely to have an immediate impact on the Chinese government.
On Tibet, for example, the government insists that Tibet is an integral part of China and always has been (except for an unfortunate half-century) and the state school system and state media have indoctrinated the Chinese people in this belief.
Consequently, what pressure the government gets from the Chinese people tends to be complaints that the government was too soft.
Nonetheless, the protests are worthy and welcome. The communist bosses in Beijing may only harden their resistance to reform as an immediate response. But there is little doubt they are a bit shocked.
The Olympics were supposed to be their coming-out party as a world power, and it is being spoiled. They might never admit it and it could take years, but they will start to think about changing some of their more noxious policies, or their successors will.
The best suggestion we’ve heard came from a sportswriter who recommended moving this year’s summer games to Sidney or Athens, which have recently hosted the Olympics and have the necessary facilities, even if it’s logistically unlikely.