Torch ignites controversy

I can’t help it — that headline was irresistible. Now that I don’t write stuff like that for a living, I have to do it somewhere, so please forgive me.

I enjoyed a brief flurry of stories about the Beijing Olympics torch last week. After Beijing announced that the torch relay would include a climb up Mt. Everest, there was a little commotion caused by some Free Tibet protesters at base camp. It would have been little more than a blip on the news radar if it weren’t for the fact that the activists, all American, were arrested.

But I found the wrangling over Taipei’s position in the torch relay much more interesting. In the ongoing struggle between the PRC and Taiwan to project opposite images of inclusion/independence, Taipei will be the last stop on the international route/first domestic stop on the torch relay, or that’s the plan so far. Officials in Taipei are said to have refused to be part of the domestic leg of the torch relay, but agreed to be a part of it if the torch entered from another country and exited to Hong Kong. Apparently that was international enough for Taiwan to accept and domestic enough for Beijing to accept.

That is, until Tsai Chen-wei, the head of Taiwan’s Olympic Committee, decided that even that was unacceptable.

“This route is a domestic route that constitutes an attempt to downgrade our sovereignty,” Tsai said. Tsai’s comments contradicted an April 13 statement by another Taiwanese Olympic official, who said the island could accept a spot on the torch route that involved Hong Kong.

As a side note, not surprisingly the Chinese press includes Taipei on all its maps of the domestic relay.

Now while I see the concerns on both sides, the torch route is nothing more than a public relations battle, of which I believe Beijing has already won. Taipei’s back and forth — yes we accept, no we don’t — isn’t helping their image or their credibility. To an international audience, the argument over placement in a torch relay can seem silly and irrelevant.

The 2008 Olympics has the potential to be a PR coup not only for Beijing, but also for Taiwan, human rights activists, the “Free Tibet-ers,” big business — and any individual or organization that has a stake in China. I, personally, am interested to see how the spin plays itself out over the next year.

Much has been written on the Everest protest in the blogsphere. Here are a few posts worth reading:
* Protests at the Roof of the World, Bad History and a new P.R. strategy for the P.R.C. from Jottings from the Granite Studio.
* An amusing post that makes its point well: Free Advice for the Free Tibet Crowd from Mutant Palm
* And an account from one of the Mt. Everest protesters himself in The Columbian.

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