The mounting protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay have prompted speculation that the International Olympic Committee, ever protective of the feelings of the Chinese government, will call off the 21-nation pageant. Committee President Jacques Rogge was quoted as calling the reports "a misunderstanding," and we hope that's right. In fact the torch spectacle unexpectedly has become an excellent vehicle for promoting understanding -- both in China and outside it.
For months, Beijing's Communist rulers have been brushing off Olympics-related protests by the likes of Steven Spielberg and telling their own people that any criticism was the work of Western extremists or "splittists" such as the Dalai Lama. Yet as thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Athens, Istanbul, London, Paris and San Francisco, the Chinese are seeing for themselves how public opinion around the world has been repulsed by their government's cynical and amoral foreign policy in places such as Sudan and Burma and by its repression of the Tibetan minority.
Yes, much of the Chinese reaction is nationalistic, and it may bolster the regime in the short term. But some light is getting through, as well. "I'm surprised about what the protesters did, but there's no smoke without fire," one Beijing student told the Post's Jill Drew. "I think our government didn't handle the Tibet issue as perfectly as we imagined."
Western audiences are also getting a taste of the real nature of China's government, whose response to the protests has mixed shrill and surrealistic rhetoric with the muscular shoves of the security goons in blue track suits who have been following the torch. Premier Wen Jiabao, who met Rogge last week, grandiosely proclaimed that "the Olympic flame, which belongs to all mankind, will never be extinguished." That's funny, because the torch was put out at least twice in Paris by Wen's security team, which sequestered it on a bus and changed its route to avoid demonstrators.
That, too, will sound familiar in China, where dissidents and human rights activists have been jailed or blanketed by other goon squads as the Games approach. Shanghai lawyer Zheng Enchong lives with a team of security guards outside his apartment door, videotaping his movements, shadowing his visitors and occasionally beating him or preventing him from attending church.
Apologists for China claim that the Olympics are not the place for political protests. That's nonsense. The Games have always had a political dimension, especially when emerging powers have used them to announce their arrival on the world stage: Japan in 1964, South Korea in 1988 -- or Nazi Germany in 1936. The torch relay was invented by Adolf Hitler, who routed it through countries he would soon invade before overseeing a final leg featuring a blond, blue-eyed runner ushering the flame into Berlin's Olympic stadium. We count it as progress of a sort that 72 years later, a police state can't celebrate itself that way without drawing a few Bronx cheers.