On Aug. 8, 2008, the summer Olympics will begin in Beijing. The date is not accidental. The number eight represents good fortune in Chinese culture.
But that date - 8/08/08 - falls exactly 20 years after the infamous day Burmese military forces massacred more than 1,000 civilians who were demonstrating for democratic rule. On Aug. 8, 1988, after the slaughter, Burma's Nobel winner Aung San Suu Kyi made her first political speech and assumed the role of opposition leader. The link between the two dates has been noticed by many who are horrified by the current carnage in Burma.
Burmese civilians, along with saffron-robed Buddhist monks, are again being cut down in the streets. China, Burma's neighbor and major trading partner, is best positioned to influence the current junta and urge them to negotiate with Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for most of the past 18 years.
But China has blocked efforts by the United States and European countries to have the United Nations Security Council condemn the crackdown, saying it is an internal matter for Burma (called Myanmar by the junta). Despite China's growing leadership role in Asia, it has been unwilling to take the lead in resolving the crisis.
Boycott is possible
If the Burmese military continues its repression, and China continues to turn a blind eye, many human-rights campaigners will press for a boycott of, or protests linked to, the Olympics. What should be a date that brings great good fortune to China could be tarnished by its linking to the Burmese bloodshed in 1988, and now.
So the question in many observers' minds is this: Will China try to avoid such linkage by using its economic influence and growing global clout to press the junta to make a deal?
China has been playing a larger role on the global scene in recent years since it became one of the world's major economic players. As part of six-party talks with North Korea, it was very helpful in nudging Pyongyang toward a recent accord on dismantling nuclear weapons.
Despite its big economic stake in Sudan, Beijing long resisted U.S. pressure to help stop the killing in Darfur. But the Chinese finally dropped objections to a United Nations/African Union peacekeeping force after human-rights groups threatened an Olympic boycott. Yet Chinese spokesmen have rejected any linkage of Burma and the Olympics.
I asked Joshua Kurlantzick, author of "Charm Offensive" - a fascinating book about Beijing's growing global influence - whether he thought China might relent.
Chinese leaders want their country "to be perceived as a global power that makes wise decisions," Kurlantzick said. But he thinks China sees a big difference between the North Korea and Sudan cases and Burma.
"North Korea is more of a threat to China because of its nuclear weapons and destabilizing refugee flows into China," says Kurlantzick. "The Darfur issue had a high international profile." When it comes to Burma, if the killing stops and the junta can remove the issue from the world's radar screen, he believes Chinese leaders would prefer not to confront the problem.
Right now the issue is on hold at the United Nations. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talked tough about the killings, and President Bush called for new economic sanctions. But the U.N. envoy sent to visit Burma's junta returned with little except a specious offer for talks with Suu Kyi - if she first renounced the opposition's demands. The envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, won't be going back until November. Meantime, Burma's generals are insulated from pressure by their exports of oil, gas and gemstones - and by China's veto on the Security Council.
And yet, the linkage between Burma's suffering and the Olympics won't go away.
Last week a full-page ad ran in the British newspaper The Financial Times that asked, "What Will China Stand For? The choice is now. On the streets of Rangoon." A photo of fleeing Burmese protestors was juxtaposed with one of Chinese officials celebrating the upcoming Olympics.
The text continued: "The world's citizens welcome a dynamic Chinese nation into the global community. But with strength comes responsibility. What is happening on the streets of Rangoon will shape not just the fate of the people of Burma but the future of China's relationship with the world."
The ad was sponsored by Avaaz.org, a team of campaigners on four continents trying to link Internet activists who promote civic causes. One of the founding groups was MoveOn.org.
Issue not going away
This new kind of global advocacy will keep the Burmese issue in view. But the tone of the ad indicates the best way to press China: reminding Beijing of its new global role.
President Bush has accepted an invitation to the Beijing Olympics. But he, European leaders, and advocacy groups must continue to remind Beijing that it can't escape its new obligations. If it won't help resolve the Burmese crisis before August 2008, that Olympic date will inevitably be linked by protesters to Aug. 8, 1988. The Beijing Olympics could become known as the Burma Olympics. Surely that is not what the Chinese leadership wants.
- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.