In the coming days, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will announce whether he will attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Given France’s presidency of the European Union, his decision – either way – will have an impact on how the whole of Europe is perceived.
Many have commented on Sarkozy’s long silence regarding the Games. Some lashed out at him for pushing the Chinese government’s patience to the limit, others attacked him for failing to side with German Chancellor Merkel when she faced Chinese anger after a meeting with the Dalai Lama in September 2007.
French advocates of the traditional Franco-Chinese strategic partnership have condemned his move, blaming it on a “lack of realism”. Meanwhile, others were ready to join the chorus after Sarkozy’s state visit to Beijing in November 2007, during which they say he was too soft on human right issues and too openly against a Taiwan referendum.
China has indeed tested France’s will: oddly, the Gordon Brown, Bush and even Merkel encounters with the Dalai Lama did not provoke such a long test. The semi-organized boycott of some French commercial firms, and a web-based outpouring of sentiment have been sure signs: in China’s largely controlled media, public opinion on sensitive issues can still be turned on or off.
Indeed, Chinese society has a long track record of public sentiment against Japan, or the United States, or even arbiters who render the “wrong” decision in international football matches. An even clearer sign has emerged recently, with the “spontaneous” decision of Beijing-based tour operators (and only them) to stop selling France as a tourist destination: the number of visa applications has dropped by 70 % in the last month.
Whatever the outcome, the Chinese government is preparing to save face: it will have anticipated a negative decision, or it will have not so discreetly pressured for a positive result. Face is essential when it comes to the Olympics, the event most trumpeted by Chinese media over the last decade.
What should Mr. Sarkozy do? First, avoid being impressed by these moves, however unpleasant they may be. France-China relations, and indeed Europe-China relations, are about realist interests and global governance first. If they include goodwill, the European contribution is much more generous than China’s.
By violating informally its own agreement with Europe as an approved destination, Beijing puts in doubt the reality of its own market economy, a status which it claims towards Europe. Should China’s partners give credence to politically-tied business contracts or to the political denial of sound business deals, they would considerably weaken their own hand in the future – regardless of the short-term pressure of business firms caught in the process.
Second, Sarkozy should keep his focus on the original issue raised about the Olympics: Tibet . The French president has been much more consistent than many observers will admit – already stating to his Chinese hosts in November 2007 the necessity of dialogue with the Dalai Lama, for example. French declarations, stating the need for a religious and spiritual solution, have in fact preceded a crucial concession by the Dalai Lama to China.
The Dalai Lama has called for an end to all public demonstrations in Tibet after the first encounter between Tibetan and Chinese negotiators. He has, on the occasion of the second encounter on 1 July, declared that his request for autonomy (and not independence) was framed within the People’s Republic Constitution. This definitely reduces the Chinese contention about separatism, and also sets the Tibetan issue far away from the Taiwan issue, allaying another Chinese fear.
Unfortunately, even if meeting with Tibetan envoys is in itself a good policy, China will most probably not answer these concessions until the Olympics are over. All screws are now tightened to demonstrate the government’s control of its domestic scene. What should Europe’s sitting president do?
Sarkozy should both attend the Olympics and speak his mind. Neither Europe nor the outside world are set to trap China in the Tibetan issue. China cannot use the Olympics to bolster its case on Tibet – as the Communist Party secretary for Tibet did recently.
But the message of the Olympics is a message of peace, even in Greek times when this was actually just a short truce. Europe should emphasize the distance that the Dalai Lama has travelled to reach an agreement with China, and President Sarkozy should stress that China’s historical responsibility is to respond.
This is better done in Beijing, especially if Chinese hosts provide an occasion for expression outside the Olympics Games themselves.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.