China has been a fierce critic of other countries politicizing the Olympics, but a recent speech by the top Communist official in Tibet has shifted the direction of the criticisms. Now China has had to defend itself from many questioning its own political Olympic agenda.
Last Saturday, Zhang Qingli, a Communist Party official in Tibet, spoke at a rally welcoming the Olympic torch. Normally these types of speeches are somewhat uneventful, and a happy feel-good "Go China!" type of event, but some of Zhang's comments caught the attention of the international media.
During the speech, Zhang said "we will certainly be able to totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai Lama clique and safeguard the stability of Tibet and national security so as to continue to the success of the Beijing Games."
To the Han Chinese listening to the speech, stabilizing Tibet and improving national security are two significant objectives. On the other hand, "smashing the Dalai Lama's schemes" probably didn't sit well with several of the ethnic Tibetans or the Dalai Lama's supporters worldwide.
It also didn't thrill the International Olympic Committee, which sent a letter to the president of the Beijing Organizing Committee "to remind them of the need to separate sport and politics and to ask for their support in making sure that such situations do not arise again."
Liu Jianchao, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, didn't agree with the assessment that Zhang's speech was politicizing the Games. Instead, he maintains that Zhang "is striving to further stabilize the Tibet region and create a harmonious and stable environment for the Games."
From the perspective of many Han Chinese, the Dalai Lama is no more than "a wolf in monk's clothing," or "a liar" with plans to destroy China. They completely discount his numerous claims that he wants Tibetan autonomy, NOT Tibetan independence.
Of course, the fact that several of his closest advisers are part of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a group that "is united in our common struggle for the restoration of complete independence for the whole Tibet" doesn't exactly endear him to China's leadership. On the other hand, much of the international sympathies align more closely with Tibet and its government-in-exile than the Beijing government.
Comparing these two drastically different perspectives, it seems there's little room for common ground. Even though the Chinese leadership views anti-Dalai Lama comments as a way to unite the country, this rhetoric actually has a more divisive effect when broadcast to an international audience.
These deep-seated differences are not going to disappear magically behind the rings of Olympic unity.It's also virtually impossible to ignore these political concerns, regardless of your views on Tibet, or any other issue for that matter.
Even though "Tibet" doesn't have the same types of connotations within China as overseas, anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric at an Olympic forum makes a strong political statement.
While international politics and disagreements will probably fade somewhat into the background as thousands of athletes unite with the universal language of sports, they will continue to be a strong player in Beijing.