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Chinese presence stirs passions in Geneva

Switzerland is home to the world's second-largest Tibetan community fleeing Chinese oppression

(Keystone)

Organisers of Geneva’s annual summer festival, which opened on Thursday, have defended their decision to invite China as the guest of honour.

Pro-Tibet campaigners announced on Wednesday that they would use the Fêtes de Genève to highlight abuses by China but said they had no plans to disrupt the event.

The opening of this year’s Fêtes de Genève coincides with a visit to Switzerland by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

His presence in the country has not gone down well with the Chinese authorities who have accused the Dalai Lama of engaging in "anti-China activities".

They are also unhappy that the Tibetan spiritual leader met Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin in Zurich on Thursday.

But fears that China’s tough line might lead to protests at one of Switzerland’s showpiece events, which attracted more than two million visitors last year, are being played down by pro-Tibet groups.

Both the Geneva Tibet Support Group and the Swiss Committee for Support of the Tibetan People have confirmed that they will have a presence at the Fêtes de Genève but say it will be low key.

"What we want to do is not disrupt the event but profit from the fact that China has been invited," said Valérie Susz, president of the Geneva Tibet Support Group

"We respect China’s traditions and culture but we believe people should be aware that China does not respect human rights, detains dissidents and continues to commit abuses in Tibet."

Leaflet campaign

Rather than organise protests, campaigners plan to issue leaflets in French and Chinese explaining how democracy works in Switzerland and comparing it to the political situation in China.

Christian Colquhoun, managing director of the Fêtes de Genève, said the decision to invite China had been taken in the light of Beijing’s decision two years ago to grant Switzerland Approved Destination Status, opening the door for an influx of Chinese visitors.

He stressed that the aim was to showcase China’s rich culture and traditions.

"Many people have asked us: 'Why China?’. We faced similar questions about human rights and so on last year when we invited Vietnam. But these countries are trying to open up to the world and we are showing what they have to offer in terms of culture and history."

He added that the fact that both China and the Dalai Lama were being fêted by the Swiss at the same time was further evidence that Switzerland was an "open country".

China’s Council of State Affairs, which arranged the Chinese programme for the event, has said it hopes to use the occasion "to strengthen the friendship and mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world".

Police in Geneva said they had received no requests for official protests against the Chinese government during the Fêtes de Genève but confirmed that they would be monitoring the situation.

Police and security staff said they would also be stepping up checks for the date-rape drug, GHB. Dozens of people were taken to hospital during last month’s Lake Parade in the city when the drug was slipped into their drinks.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

The festival opened on Thursday with a kung-fu display by monks from the Shaolin Temple. The Women’s Orchestra of Sichuan and artists from the Opera and Ballet Theatre of Xi’an will also be performing during the festival.

Other events include the "Caravane du Monde", which brings together more than 700 musicians, acrobats and dancers from seven countries, and Geneva’s first "Slow Up" when part of the city will be closed to traffic and turned over to pedestrians, cyclists and skaters.

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Key facts

The festival runs from August 4-14.
Around 250 concerts will take place at various lakeside sites.
2.1 million people attended the Fêtes de Genève in 2004

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