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Expert urges caution over anti-Chinese protests


Calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics and a tough line with China over Tibet risk strengthening regime hardliners, warns a Swiss expert.

Nicolas Zufferey, head of Chinese studies at Geneva University, told swissinfo that the Chinese government is not as strong as it appears and western protests could well jeopardise earlier signs of openness.

On Wednesday the Olympic torch will be paraded in Pakistan after brief and uninterrupted stopovers in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East on its way to the host country, China.

Human rights protests caused chaos at previous legs in London, Paris and San Francisco.

Calls have intensified for world leaders to boycott the opening ceremony of the Games in August.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will not attend the opening ceremony owing to a scheduling conflict. President Bush is under pressure from White House hopefuls John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama not to attend. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said they will not be there, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy is mulling whether to go.

swissinfo: Do tensions between China and western countries risk reinforcing Chinese hardliners?

Nicolas Zufferey: Indeed. It’s a classic scenario in China. If the situation gets any worse, we cannot exclude the regime shutting itself off from the West, which would be disastrous for minority groups in China and Chinese residents themselves. Another possible scenario would be a crisis erupting within the Chinese authorities. We have to keep an eye on the Chinese army, where certain officials are reportedly unhappy with the soft line taken, according to the Hong Kong media.

Let’s not forget that the Chinese are generally behind their government over this whole issue of Olympic protests. Even the Chinese media based in Hong Kong and abroad, who are traditionally critical of Beijing, see western criticism as a return to imperialist times, this time using words instead of weapons.

Here in the West we are witnessing a rise in xenophobic reactions against the Chinese. I have seen readers’ letters in newspapers which border on anti-Chinese racism, reminding us of the “Yellow Peril” of a century ago, while in China there’s a growing anti-western xenophobic movement. This kind of clash is not going to help move things forward.

For the Chinese government to back down would be seen as a sign of weakness. History has shown that climb-downs are always very badly viewed by the Chinese people and the conservative elite.

swissinfo: What do we know about the different factions within the Chinese authorities?

N.Z.: It’s difficult to know exactly who pulls the strings within the Chinese authorities. Today, the central power is relatively weak. For example, President Hu Jintao doesn’t have great command over the army.

The Chinese Communist Party is also evolving: from moderate reformists to party members who focus solely on economic development, not forgetting the old guard who still have considerable influence.

swissinfo: How can countries react without turning the Chinese authorities against them?

N.Z.: In western countries everyone agrees that China’s actions in Tibet and its repression there is inadmissible.

But it’s possible for western leaders to exert pressure and take steps behind the scenes using a combination of pressure, aid, invitations and dialogue. In the human rights dialogue organised between Beijing and Bern, the Chinese delegation has visited Switzerland to look at its prison and judicial systems.

These type of exchanges can have an impact. The younger generation in China today is much better educated than their predecessors and a growing number of party members have studied at university. This kind of change can advance things, as can increased contact with the West.

swissinfo: What are some of the biggest changes you have witnessed in China over recent years?

N.Z.: The human rights situation has improved over the past 20 years. The regime is no longer totalitarian, even if there are dictatorial tendencies. Some 30 journalists have been imprisoned, for example, but the media is not completely under state control.

China is not going to become a democratic nation overnight. But state influence is shrinking in a growing number of areas. The Chinese can travel. In private they have the freedom to think what they like. The government no longer imposes its propaganda campaigns as it did in the past. Freedoms have increased over the past few years.

China will probably continue to open up and government control will continue to reduce. Despite everything the Chinese authorities are keen on improving their reputation over Tibet. Certain pressure can therefore be useful.

swissinfo-interview: Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

The Lausanne-based International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing on July 13, 2001. While the people of the city celebrated in the streets, many human rights organisations, dissidents and Tibetan exiles criticised the decision.

Reactions included “historic wrong decision” and “reward for a corrupt regime”. There was even a parallel drawn with the Olympic Games of 1936 which were misused for Nazi propaganda.

Others insisted that the Games offered an opportunity for democracy in China. The IOC was concerned not to put the focus on the human rights issue in choosing the venue for the 2008 Olympics.

The 2008 Olympic Games take place in Beijing from August 8-24. It is the first time they are being held in the People’s Republic.

There are 302 competitions in 28 sports. The opening ceremony begins at 8.08pm on 08.08.2008.

Swiss star architects Herzog & de Meuron designed the Olympic stadium in Beijing. A workforce of about 30,000 is building the Olympic facilities.

From Olympia in Greece, the flame started its 137,000-kilometre journey across five continents on March 24. It will arrive at the Beijing stadium on August 8. Protests seriously disrupted the relay stages in London, Paris and San Francisco.

In 1991 Switzerland became the first western country to institutionalise a human rights dialogue with China.

The exchange of ideas involves regular meetings between both countries focusing on penal sentences, minority rights and economic human rights. The ninth meeting was held in Switzerland in March 2006. Since then no other meetings have taken place. Switzerland hopes that China will soon propose a date for the next human rights session.

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