Tibet and the torch through Han eyes

When Kevin Rudd first met Hu Jintao in Sydney he scored and accepted a spontaneous invitation to the Olympic Games. Bantering in Mandarin, the Chinese President momentarily forgot his usual stiff and pre-scripted self.

Since then Rudd has frequently used the dreaded T-word and Chinese sources believe he has reduced his Olympic Games "commitment" to a possibility, contingent on what else might turn up in his diary.

On Saturday Rudd met Hu for the second time. According to Rudd, they traversed ground that had already been covered with lower-ranking Chinese leaders.

According to Hu's account, he told Rudd: "Our conflict with the Dalai clique is not an ethnic problem, not a religious problem, nor a human rights problem. It is a problem of either preserving national unity or splitting the motherland."

Hu talked about opening the door to dialogue with the Dalai Lama but actually nailed it shut. He attacked the Dalai for trying to "split the motherland", "incite violence" and "ruin the Beijing Olympics" (though the Dalai Lama had said exactly the opposite of all those things the night before).

What could Rudd possibly say to all that?

The domestic political point is not that Rudd hasn't done as well as people say he has in China. No other world leader could have done better.

But behind the scenes it was an exceptionally tough trip that started with him being inexplicably refused entry to the Australian-designed Olympic swimming venue, the Water Cube, and the Olympic tennis centre as well. An agreement was reached on climate change, but it probably lacked the substantive content Rudd would have liked.

But his climate change minister, Penny Wong, did cement her relationship with China's most important climate change bureaucrat, Xie Zhenhua. And Rudd held meaningful conversations with China's No. 2 leader, Premier Wen Jiabao, and an important 20-minute talk, in private and in Chinese language, with Wen's designated successor, Li Keqiang.

And the tone of Rudd's meeting with Hu is said to have been positive, despite the lack of substantial content.

Rudd's exceptional Peking University speech is receiving global attention because it faced up to problems that were not just about Chinese domestic politics or even the Australia-China bilateral relationship.

The broader, global context is that the Tibetan uprising has caught China's leadership hopelessly trapped in an old, Maoist binary world of good and evil, friend and foe, that leaves no room for negotiation or even rational conversation. China is paying a very high price for the tanks that blocked the road of political reform and open intellectual engagement back in 1989.

At the same time the Olympic torch has become a vector for transmitting the Tibetan conflict from China through Europe, the US and shortly to Australia.

China's binary propaganda has transformed the torch from a piece of aluminium into an inalienable piece of Chinese sovereignty. Any affront to the torch has become an attack on China.

The West has failed to see that it is not only the Communist Party that equates the torch with Chinese pride. Instead, this formulation is being adopted throughout the majority Han population within China and throughout the world.

The coming Beijing Olympics had unified the world's Chinese communities around China's optimstic future. But the Olympics have now been fused with the Tibetan uprising. The Olympics have taken on a new, defensive symbolism as much of the pan-Chinese population bunkers down against what they perceive to be a hostile, jealous West.

China is trapped by the inflexible thought and rhetoric of political dictatorship. The West is blinded by moral arrogance. And each insult to the torch has, inadvertently, become an attack on Chinese people everywhere.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a Chinese "catastrophical event", as the Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, puts it, is a little easier to imagine now than it was a month ago.

Venerable old China hands believe the world political and economic order is facing a major challenge. One such person is Sidney Rittenberg, an American scholar who knew China's top leadership intimately and was later jailed by them for 16 years.

"While the heat and passions of the moment will pass in time, the damage done to the Western image in the minds of hundreds of millions of Chinese may not," he says. "And very few in China are questioning why the discontent exists in Tibet and why more than 50 years of political and economic work have failed to win a great many Tibetan hearts Right now, one sees no moves from China to combat Great Han Chauvinism, which is what keeps them from working effectively with Tibetans and other ethnic minorities.

"And that ultimately means damage to the most important relationship of the 21st century - that between China and the outside world, particularly the US. Without some basic understanding and rapport, forget about resolving species-threatening crises like WMD, terrorism and global warming."

Rittenberg believes Rudd is in a "unique" position to explain to China and the world what they need to do. He says Rudd began to exercise his responsibilities in the Peking University speech.

That speech was months in the making and had many intellectual contributors. One of them was Confucious and his Doctrine of the Mean, Zhongyong, which counsels that moderation, patience and endless study are the attributes of a "superior man"

"In a high situation, he does not treat with contempt his inferiors. In a low situation, he does not court the favour of his superiors. He rectifies himself, and seeks for nothing from others, so that he has no dissatisfactions. He does not murmur against heaven, nor grumble against men."

Rudd, wisely, is constantly telling reporters not to overestimate his role in all of this. But people like Rittenberg think that if he can't coax a little moderation out of the West or China then it is not clear who can.

jgarnaut@gmail.com