As the Olympic Torch Relay makes its way around the world, it is being met by significant human rights protests. To those who wish to protest, I would like to offer some suggestions.
1. Do Not Protest Against "China"
Do not protest against the Chinese people or against "China." Instead, do protest against the policies of the Chinese Communist Party.
China is a repressive dictatorship run by a single political party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Only 5% of China's citizens are members of the CCP; 95% of Chinese are not. From the point of view of the Chinese Communist Party, the purpose of hosting the Olympics is to prove to the subjects of their rule that the rest of the world accepts the CCP as the legitimate leaders of the Chinese people. The Chinese Communists want the citizens of China to think that international criticism of the policies of the Communist government are attacks on the Chinese people as a whole.
Apologists for the Chinese Communists try to convince us that the Chinese people are angered by foreign criticism of China's human rights policies. For all the talk one hears about the spread of the Internet in China, it is worth keeping in mind that 85% of the Chinese population does not use the Internet. The vast majority of Chinese get all of their news from government-controlled television and other media, and they have little, if any, exposure to opposing points of view. To those of us outside of China, Chinese Communist Party speeches and press releases about the Dalai Lama and the "Dalai Clique" orchestrating the violent confrontations in Tibet seem, at best, ridiculous, as does Chinese TV's assertion that the Torch Relay disruptions have been caused by "a handful of Tibetan separatists." Yet most Chinese probably believe these accusations to be true because this is the only version they ever hear.
To protest against "China" is to play into the hands of the CCP, allowing its leaders to make the case that the protests are anti-Chinese rather than anti-Chinese Communist Party.
2. Do Not Protest Against the Olympics
Do not protest against the Olympics or against the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The IOC made a mistake by choosing Beijing to host the 2008 Olympics. With 125 democracies in the world, there was no excuse for awarding the Games to one of the 70 or so countries still ruled by a dictatorship. But the vote (56-49) was hardly unanimous, and almost half of the members of the IOC feel as badly about the choice as do demonstrators. The 10,000+ athletes of the world who will qualify to compete in the Olympics deserve to do so. They also deserve the right to express their political opinions if they so desire. When demonstrators attack the Olympics, they weaken the message of the protests.
3. Do Not Attack the Relay Runners or the Torch Itself
Whatever one thinks of the Olympics, the Torch Relay has come to symbolize the peaceful joining together of the peoples of the world. Four years ago, prior to the Athens Olympics, the Olympic Flame was taken all over the world and there were no problems. To attack it is to give fuel to the arguments of those who support the Chinese Communist Party. A more effective means of protest is to non-violently slow the progress of the Relay from a run to a walk.
4. Use Bilingual Signs
To hold up signs and banners in English is fine if you want to influence other Westerners, but if your goal is to show the Chinese people that the rest of the world wants to make contact, translate your message into Mandarin. You never know what images will seep through the notorious Great Firewall of China. Why not try something like a Mandarin translation of "The Chinese Communist Party does not speak for the Chinese people."
5. Do Not Commit Acts of Violence
Violent acts of protest are just the sort of images the Chinese Communist leaders want to use for their portrayal of pro-Tibetan or pro-democracy protestors. Don't allow yourself to become a prop in a Chinese Communist propaganda campaign.
6. Look Beyond the Olympics
Protests and demonstrations surrounding the Beijing Olympics are not enough to bring independence to Tibet, democracy to China or allow the Chinese people to finally practice freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The Chinese Communists may make superficial gestures to appease the IOC, but once the Olympics are over, the leaders of the CCP will return to their repressive ways. The only pressure to which the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party will ultimately respond is economic pressure. Because the West is now dependent on Chinese labor, Chinese customers and Chinese loans, it will require long-term strategies to force the Chinese Communist Party to open up more than its economy. In the meantime, why not ask some of the Olympic sponsors what they think about human rights issues in China? Why not ask Coca-Cola, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, McDonalds, Panasonic, Samsung or VISA?
Please treat your concern about Tibet, Darfur or China as a lasting concern rather than as a passing fad.
David Wallechinsky is the author of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics and Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators. He is the Vice-President of the International Society of Olympic Historians.