merkel says nein to beijing olympics

Posted on March 28, 2008

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Maybe it is true after all — women leaders can be tougher and ballsier than men.

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has decided to do away with the bobbing and weaving and cut to the chase — she will not be in Beijing for the opening ceremony for this summer’s Olympics, making her the first world leader to take such a bold stand. Her action is believed to be a response to the violent suppression of Tibetan protests by the Chinese authorities, although her office has been careful to disassociate her decision from the issue.

Unlike her French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, there is none of the humming and hawing from the German leader. Sarkozy, after much pressure from the French population to take a strong stand against Beijing, would only say his attendance in Beijing in August is conditional on China’s behavior in its crackdown over Tibet.

Other European leaders have also decided to boycott the Beijing Olympics. They include Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister and President Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic.

Perhaps having grown up under the communist system in the former East Germany, Merkel has a stronger sense for standing on the side of human rights. She had previously infuriated the Chinese leadership by meeting the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, in Berlin in September last year.

In retaliation, China had canceled a meeting between the German Justice Minister and Chinese officials. This time, the repercussions from Beijing are likely to be even tougher, given how badly China wants the Beijing Olympics to be its coming party and a showcase of its progress to the world.

China’s headache will not end here. The European Union has a foreign ministers’ meeting in Slovenia on Saturday and the Tibet issue will be part of the agenda. According to reports, some European leaders want a concerted EU response to the matter, although many are reluctant to resort to boycotting the Olympics, preferring talks rather than tying sports to politics.

The European country caught in an awkward position in this episode is the UK. Its prime minister Gordon Brown had promised to be at Beijing. But his hands are rather tied, given his role as the leader of the country that will be hosting the Olympics next, in 2012. If the EU decides to take a harder stand, the UK would be stuck in a dilemma.

At the end of the day, the European leaders do have to tread carefully on this very delicate issue. The main thing here is the welfare of the Tibetans. While it is necessary they send Beijing a firm signal, they cannot afford to overdo things and cause China to come down even harder on the Tibetans in response. That would make things more tragic than it already is.

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