Sarkozy turns up pressure on China
Hints at possible boycott of Olympic opening ceremony
PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested yesterday that a boycott of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics was a possibility, the first world leader to raise the prospect of punishing China over its ongoing crackdown in Tibet.
The United States, Britain, and Germany all condemned China for using force against Tibetan protesters, but they stopped short of threatening to boycott the games or the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.
China, meanwhile, showed no sign of letting up on its crackdown. At least two people were killed in a clash between protesters and police in an area of western China that borders on Tibet, state media and human rights groups reported Tuesday.
The clashes were the latest in most sustained uprising against Chinese rule in almost two decades, a challenge that has put China's human rights record in the international spotlight, embarrassing and frustrating a Communist leadership that had hoped for a smooth run-up to the Olympic Games.
China's response has also pushed human rights campaigners and governments to reexamine their approach to the Olympics.
Sarkozy, who had faced rising criticism in France for his relative silence on the issue, couched his comments cautiously: He made it clear that skipping the ceremony was one of several possible French responses to the violence in Tibet.
"Our Chinese friends must understand the worldwide concern that there is about the question of Tibet, and I will adapt my response to the evolutions in the situation that will come, I hope, as rapidly as possible," he said in southwest France.
Asked whether he supported a boycott, Sarkozy said he could "not close the door to any possibility."
His aides confirmed that Sarkozy was talking only about the opening ceremony. His ministers have repeatedly said France does not support a boycott of the games.
The timing of Sarkozy's comments appeared aimed at persuading other world leaders to join him. He travels today to Britain, host of the 2012 Olympics, and European Union foreign ministers meet Friday.
British officials have ruled out a boycott, saying the government believes close cooperation with China is the best way to influence it.
President Bush has long planned to attend the Beijing Olympics, and the White House said the crackdown in Tibet is not cause for him to cancel.
Even if Sarkozy fails to persuade other leaders, he stands to reap political benefits from his position. The French leader, a conservative who pledged to make fighting for human rights around the world a hallmark of his presidency, has come under domestic pressure to speak out against the violence in Tibet.
Last weekend, an opposition Socialist leader lashed out at Sarkozy's "deafening silence" on the issue, while Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Without Borders urged an opening ceremony boycott by heads of state and other VIPs.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he didn't see the Beijing Games as a political event and disagreed with the idea of a boycott. A German government spokesman echoed that comment, saying a boycott would "distract" from efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
Reporters Without Borders got headlines when three of its members evaded security at the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony Monday in Greece, and one ran behind a Chinese Olympic official who was speaking and unfurled a black banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs. Later, a Tibetan woman covered in fake blood briefly blocked the path of the torch relay.
As the Olympic torch began its 85,000-mile, 136-day journey across five continents and 20 countries to the games, officials were bracing for more such protests.
China has pledged strict security measures to ensure protests won't mar its segment of the relay, which is slated to pass through Tibet. The flame is due to be carried to the summit of Mount Everest in May and pass through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in June.
Even as China's leaders looked for ways to blunt the international criticism, Beijing has been able to shape its message inside its borders. China's complete control over its media meant that there was virtually no news yesterdayof the protests that disrupted the flame-lighting ceremony. It also was extremely difficult to verify information about the protests and crackdown in and around Tibet.
The clash reported yesterday between protesters and police in western China was the latest burst of violence that erupted in Lhasa on March 14 following days of antigovernment protests by monks. The government says at least 22 people have died in Lhasa while Tibetan rights groups say nearly 140 were killed, including 19 in neighboring Gansu province.