By dint of bad planning, your correspondent managed to be in a city where actual news was happening, an event which, in forcing direct observation of people interacting with each other, takes all that’s essentially American out of the experience.

Anyhoo, by mid morning today, thousands of people had already assembled on the San Francisco waterfront, for the midday passage of the Olympic torch. Some of them weren’t protestors, though they were hard to find among the assembled Tibetans, Burmese, animal rights activists (caged bears – the cause, not the activists), etc. San Francisco was chosen a while back as the only American city the torch would pass through, on account of its large Chinese-originated population – 20% by some accounts – and its hallowed role as the town where chop suey was invented.

Presumably it never occurred to the organisers that it was also pretty much the heart of the American new left social movements, and that if protesting gets demonstration sport status this town will be going for gold. You don’t have to bus anyone in here to get a protest quorum. The hippies have just stayed and aged; a fair majority of the panhandlers look like they were roadies for the Grateful Dead and probably were.

With the Paris and London experience fresh in their minds, the organisers had already laid on maximum security for the torch which arrived Tuesday in the pre-dawn dark and was given its own guarded hotel room – and was also reported to have been provided with a hookah. Hookah! Geddit, y’see what I… never mind.

Anyway, with protestors piled up along the route and pretty much taking numbers regarding disruption, the authorities basically caved, halved the route length and run time (to about 45 minutes) so that cops could line the seafront shoulder-to-shoulder. The 75 torch carriers doubled up, and the general sense of the ’08 olympics as an embattled, contested event was achieved.

God knows who to barrack for in all this malarkey. You can’t blame Tibetan protestors for doing whatever they can to deny consent to China’s assumption of consent via the Olympics, but the whole campaign is so waist-deep in hypocrisy and western triumphalism as to make you gag.

The idea that prior Western Olympics have been held by virtuous nations is laughable. The modern competition was invented by Baron de wossname as a way of inculcating the military virtues he thought French youth needed in the wake of the nation’s 1870 defeat at the hands of Prussia, and most of the modern pageantry was invented by Hitler in ’36.

In ’04 it was held in the US when they were running a brutal colonial war in the Philippines, ’08 happened in Paris, despite their gulag of concentration camps in Algeria, Antwerp got it despite the Belgian Congo, Berlin, Moscow, Mexico City say no more – and in 1956, Australia had been helping the Brits in a brutal colonial war against Malaysian independence, counting Aborigines as fauna and testing a-bombs on them. After that it got better – the international organisation was run for two decades by Franco’s minister for Sport. Yeah, you wouldn’t want China to lower the tone, for chrissake.

Even better, the cause is Tibet, the ultimate cuddly insurgency. Though movie stars et al have by and large moved on from Dalai Lama love to lecturing us about global warming from their mansions, the theme of gruesome modernity crushing a spiritual, i.e. medieval nation, continues. Aristocrats always prefer the eternal and unchanging, and hence unchallenging, to anything which suggests change and transformation, and celebrities are simply the aristocrats de nos jours. Of course they like theocracies.

The Tibetans undoubtedly have a right to self-determination, and many of the protestors are sincere, but the effect of campaigning on this issue, rather than putting more heat on their own government for, like, occupying a big chunk of West Asia, is simply to be enrolled in a broader Western campaign against China, part of a long-term process to construct it as “the enemy” for a time when the struggle for resources heats up to conflict further down the road.

The ambiguity of this is no better expressed than the way in which the Darfur issue, and China’s support of the Sudanese government, has been drawn in. Whatever nastiness is going on in Darfur, pointing the finger at the Chinese is about African oil and who gets it and nothing more.

God knows what any African must think when they’re told by the West that Chinese involvement in the continent is a threat to their human rights. The Australian today reprints a piece by the aptly-named William Pfaff which suggests that the Chinese reject such criticism because they have no equivalent words for “liberty” (or quite possibly chop suey) and react harshly to criticism out of a sense of innate Chinese superiority. Yes, how different they are to Europeans.

Protestors and supporters slugged this out on the route the torch was to run – it was put in a bus almost before it had got started and taken to another part of the route almost immediately. As the authorities scoped the number of protestors, they further cancelled the closing ceremony of the run, which was rescheduled to a secret location.

To be fair to the SF protestors — aside from a few archaic anti-communists who mixed uneasily with the rest — most of them seemed to be anti-Iraq War as well, to judge from the buttons that all but obscured several of them.

Steve, an ageing “child of hippies”, told me that “I’m against you know, oppression everywhere. Doesn’t matter man. I was out marching against the war, I’ll march against this.”

But didn’t the anti-China protest have a touch of the military humanitarian attitude that guided Iraq? A degree of racism?

“Man you can’t worry about being called a racist.”

Hmmmmmmm.

Beth, a younger, better turned out protestor, didn’t worry either. She kinda was a racist.

“I’m a Buddhist, that’s how I became aware.”

Aware? Of everything?

“I feel like the Chinese are kinda, I dunno, jealous of the Tibetans. I think there’s a lot of bad energy going on.”

Oh yes, it was San Francisco alright. It must be said the pro-Chinese protestors were more on message, at times sounding like an embassy press-release.

“They do not tell the truth about Tibet. The Tibetans lie about China,” Jian told me.

What did her friend think?: “The Tibetans do not tell the truth”. Ah.

Meanwhile, all three presidential candidates are towing a very careful line on the mysterious (B)east.

China-bashing helps all of them – McCain for a general idea of western supremacy, Obama and Clinton to outflank each other with committed Dems in the remaining primaries. The only thing tempering their humanitarian ardour mindfulness is the fact that China owns their country’s ass.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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