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Huntsman supports protests over China’s treatment of Tibet

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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Monday he supports the protests against China's treatment of Tibet that are disrupting the Olympic torch relay for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

"Of course, I do. This is who we are," Huntsman, who has represented the U.S. government in China, told the Deseret Morning News. "I think we ought to be totally American about it, in terms of our expressions of outrage and concern and speaking up front and openly as we always do as Americans."

The governor said he protested outside the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., against China's brutal 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square — even though he ran the Asian affairs bureau for the U.S. Commerce Department at the time.

But Huntsman stopped short Monday of calling for President Bush to join leaders in France, Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden and other nations who are at least considering a boycott of the Olympics' Aug. 8 opening ceremonies.

"Our country now has a policy of engagement. And I don't disagree," said the governor, who also served as a U.S. trade representative to China and speaks fluent Mandarin. "Because by engaging partners, we bring about change."

Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying Bush should boycott the opening ceremonies "absent major changes by the Chinese government." The New York senator cited the recent violent clashes in Tibet as well as China's support for the Sudan despite the genocide in Darfur.

Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, has said he opposes such a boycott because the opening ceremonies are supposed to focus on the athletes participating in the Games, not the host country.

"If you think the opening ceremony is about recognizing China, then you probably would boycott it," Romney recently told CNN News. "If you think it's about recognizing the world and humankind, then you're there to pay respect to the athlete."

A number of Utahns are expected to participate in a protest march set for Wednesday in San Francisco during the Olympic torch's only stop in the United States. Protesters scaled the Golden Gate Bridge Monday in anticipation of the next leg of the international torch relay.

Already, protesters in London and Paris have attempted to snuff out the Olympic flame to bring attention to China's human rights record.

Huntsman said such protests can help pressure the Chinese government to "undertake a healthy dialog" with Tibet, considered an autonomous region. Last month, protests by Buddhist monks in Lhasa turned deadly as Chinese security forces poured into the Tibetan capital.

"I don't think it's bad," the governor said of the pressure being put on China to confront concerns over human rights. "In trade issues, we always exert pressure. That's how we made progress. But it has to be pressure combined with appropriate timing."

And now may be the right time, Huntsman said. He was among the top candidates to become U.S. ambassador to China in 2001 and led a trade mission as governor to Beijing and Shanghai nearly two years ago.

China had to anticipate protests when it bid for the Olympics seven years ago, the governor said, suggesting reformers within the Chinese government were behind the push to get the Games.

"This is unprecedented for the Chinese to subject themselves to this kind of scrutiny and spotlight, and they knew in 2001 that would be part and parcel of hosting the Games," he said. "The reformers won out years ago by saying this is a good thing. There will be change."

The top leaders of the Beijing Games, Huntsman said, are relatively young and high-ranking members of the Communist Party's Politburo. Xi Jinping, the head of the Beijing organizing committee, is seen as a successor to China's current leader.

"They've made a huge investment in the outcome of the Olympics," Huntsman said. Those investments include some reforms, such as the creation of a more powerful ministry of the environment and naming an envoy to Sudan.

The current controversy over Tibet, the governor predicted, is "just the beginning of a litany of issues that will be brought up." The Chinese, he said, appear to be "willing to embrace greater change moving forward."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com