Several weeks ago, the Czech Republic raised eyebrows by celebrating the International Day for Tibet with particular enthusiasm. Politicians hung the Tibetan flag from government offices, and ministers showed open support for the plight of the Tibetan people. The event is usually regarded as little more than an act of symbolism. But this year, following the subsequent unrest in Tibet, this region, for sixty years part of China, has again come under the spotlight.
For China, which is hosting the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer, these events have proved to be particularly embarrassing. Ondřej Liška is the Czech Republic’s minister for sports and education:
“China has been expected to use the occasion of the Olympic Games this year as an opportunity to enhance the protection of human rights and guarantee political freedoms of faith, religion and speech. But as we have seen in Tibet, and we have seen this continuously in the past several years, it has not been the case.”
That is one reason why many politicians – like the education minister - continue to back the Day for Tibet:
“I don’t think that the continuous hanging of flags will change much, but I think that it is important by words, by statements, by our deeds to remind the public discourse that there is something going on in Tibet which is not alright.”
Peng Bin is a spokesperson for the Chinese government at the Chinese embassy in Prague. He insists that the Olympics are not the correct venue for the airing of political grievances:
“The Beijing Olympics is not an event just for the Chinese people; I think it is a great event for people all over the world. And the Olympic Games are not a venue for political issues. We regard the Olympic Games as a good opportunity and a platform for the people from all the countries of the world to come together – to strengthen communication, to exchange views and develop a mutual understanding and friendship, this is what we think. So it is no good to sabotage or do some negative things to these Olympic Games, which are a great event for people all over the world.”
“Some of the people here, and the politicians hang the so-called Tibetan flags and we are absolutely against this action because they are not talking about the truth – they are cheating international opinion. And we have talked with Czech diplomats and expressed our strong dissatisfaction and lodged a protest.”
But Education Minister Ondřej Liška rejects these accusations, and maintains a surprisingly firm line:
“I think that the Chinese government and the Chinese Embassy uses any occasion to write a diplomatic note or be outraged about the positions of Czech politicians on human rights in China. It is not a rare occurrence, so I do consider it, but I do not consider it as being too important for long-term relationships.”
Indeed, Mr Liška has announced that he will not be attending the Olympic Games in Beijing, as a form of protest against the human rights situation in that country. Yet he insists that his views are his alone, and do not represent government policy:
“It is not a matter of a few days or a few weeks. What we are expecting is a significant shift in Chinese policy towards human rights and the violation of human rights not only in Tibet, but in all of China. Political freedoms and so on, are not guaranteed, so this is why we are still sceptical. And for me personally, I will not take part in the Olympic Games in China this year, though I am not calling on the sportsmen and women to boycott the games. I think that they should go and win, and if they find enough braveness, they should also express their minds if they feel the same way.”
Zuzana Ondomišiová runs a Tibetan cultural and information centre in Prague called Potala. I asked her why the Czech Republic has a particular fascination with the plight of Tibet:
“Because we have a very similar experience with the ‘big’ Soviet Union neighbouring our country and pushing its own politics on our government. But I think that in comparison with Tibet, we just had an easy time. From the practical sense, there was Václav Havel, our first president, who invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Czech Republic in 1990. Since then, His Holiness has visited our country many times, and so the public consciousness of Tibetan problems became deeper.”
But Chinese governmental representative Peng Bin suggests that the Czech media has been displaying an unfair and distorted bias of events in Tibet:
“I think for the people in this country, they can read some of the articles written by the Czech journalists – I myself have noticed some articles written by some Czech journalists. And are they trying to tell people what really happened in Lhasa, the capital city of the Tibet Autonomous Region? I think if people know what is really happening, when the people know the truth, I think they will make the right choice and see the proper way to talk about the events that happened in Tibet recently.”
But Zuzana Ondomišiová is dismissive of such claims:
“I think that’s the way how a communist ideology defends itself. Because certainly there is a very inconvenient situation for China, before the Olympic Games, and so they try to trivialize the problems. And the main Chinese standpoint is that there was violence against just Chinese citizens, and that needs to be suppressed. But there were so many other demonstrations in other parts of the Tibetan area and they are not popular in the Chinese media because they were peaceful. Everybody thinks about Tibet as just a holy country full of monks and full of people who can’t get angry – but it can happen that people get a little bit angry.”
And how does she feel about the question of an Olympic boycott?
“It is very difficult to decide because from my point of view, the best way would be if the Chinese side, before starting the Olympic Games, decides to start communicating with Tibetans in exile and also with Tibetans in Tibet. But this is not very likely. And I don’t have any strict point of view, about whether to boycott the Games or not, but I don’t agree with many politicians who say that sportsmen and women are not allowed to express their thoughts openly. Also, I think that it will become very difficult to be happy in Beijing and to pretend that there is joy from the Olympic feats, because you must also think that just a few hundred kilometres around these places, there are dead people; there are the families of those who have been killed, and there are policeman and the army pushing people not to express their own problems, thoughts and experiences.”
One thing is clear, this year, China will be under unprecedented scrutiny. And if, as many analysts have suggested, the country has truly begun to be concerned about global public opinion, then it may have to do far more than prove that it can host a sports tournament – it may also have to concede that human rights, media freedom, self-determination and freedom of expression are an inseparable part of the Olympic equation. For their part, many in the Czech Republic appear unafraid of strongly pushing that message.
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