Last week, I debated Steve Clemons on whether President Bush should boycott the Olympics opening ceremony to show disgust over Chinese human rights abuses. I argued that Bush should boycott (or at least find some other way to express his disapproval publicly); Steve disagreed. Much of the debate boiled down to the question of whether Beijing was susceptible to public pressure on human rights--whether embarrassing Chinese leaders over the Olympics might cause them to moderate their human rights policies, or whether it was just grandstanding that would (at best) accomplish nothing and (at worst) spark a nationalist backlash that would alienate China even further from the west.

So I was interested to see that, today, Beijing signaled it was willing to meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama, which it has not done since last summer. According to The New York Times:

China appeared to bend to international pressure on Friday as the government announced it would meet with envoys of the Dalai Lama, an unexpected shift that comes as Tibetan unrest in western China has threatened to cast a pall over the Beijing Olympics in August.

Of course, it's hard to know just how much the recent negative publicity surrounding the Olympics--the protests at the torch relay, the comments of Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he might not attend the opening ceremony--contributed to this move. Plus, offering to meet with the Dalai Lama's representatives is obviously a very small concession. As two experts quoted in the piece point out, the announcement could very well be a mere public-relations gambit rather than a step that will lead to true progress on human rights.

Still, Beijing's move suggests that it is paying close attention to international criticism of its human rights record during the run-up to the Olympics--and that it may be willing to respond to such criticism constructively. Which at least raises the possibility that protests--by athletes, by activists, and by elected leaders like President Bush--aren't doomed to backfire.

--Richard Just