Should we boycott the Beijing Olympic Games?

Written by Nicholas Olczak. Posted in Opinion, Politics

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Published on March 24, 2008 with 2 Comments

Nicholas Olczak
Photo by Luke Thomas

Analysis by Nicholas Olczak

March 24, 2008

On April 9, San Francisco will be the only North American city to host the Olympic torch on its relay journey between Greece and Beijing.

Local activists have called for the city to boycott this event, asserting that the torch is “a symbol of [the] bloodshed and oppression” that has been practiced by China. Mayor Gavin Newsom, whilst indicating that he is sensitive to human rights issues in China, has defended San Francisco’s reception of the torch by arguing that it carries different symbolism.

Need for reform

“It’s important to remember that the Olympic spirit is one of international harmony and goodwill, and it transcends politics,” Newsom spokesperson Nathan Ballard said. “In this spirit, San Francisco is proud to be the only North American city to host the Olympic torch relay.”

The words “in this spirit” here are important. Deciding whether or not to boycott the torch, the public is essentially deciding whether they believe it symbolizes the Olympic spirit of equality, or the legitimacy of the Chinese regime.

The Olympic torch is first of all an Olympic symbol. It is not intrinsically a political symbol, but acts as a vessel into which people pour their own meaning. How much we can empty it of those meanings once given is debatable. If one argues that the torch only represents the Olympic spirit now, you are liable to be labeled as a supporter of oppression and told you are turning a blind eye to China’s crimes. In reality, few on either side would dispute the controversial human rights record of the Chinese regime and the need for reform.

Domestically, much attention has been drawn recently to China’s persistent use of capital punishment and the execution of an estimated 7,500 each year. Many dissidents are executed, and other criminals punished, without a fair trial, often simply for speaking out against the state.

An excuse to squash dissent in Tibet

This week’s uprising in Lhasa has brought China’s controversial occupation and suppression of Tibet to the world’s attention. China maintains that Tibet is an integral part of its state and has been since the Yuan dynasty in the 13th Century. Central to Tibetan independence arguments is the fact that this conquest was undertaken by Manchu and Mongol dynasties which some claim are not technically Chinese. In 1912, a conference of Britain, China and Tibet gave the region autonomy, but in 1950 the Communists established military rule in Tibet.

China’s response to the uprising by monks this week marks the last in a long legacy of aggressive suppression. What’s different and also worrying this time, however, is the reported violence from Tibetan protesters which gives the Chinese Government their excuse to act.

A further, spreading stain on China’s human rights record is its continued support of the Sudanese Government despite their involvement in assaults on civilians. Aid organizations estimate that 200,000 people have died and more than 2 million have been displaced in Darfur. China helps to fund the Sudanese regime by buying around 60 percent of its oil. It has sold weapons to the Sudanese government, and has used its UN veto to block actions which might resolve the crisis. China’s “strategic and supportive relationship with the Sudanese government” recently led actress Mia Farrow to attack China and encourage Stephen Spielberg to boycott the Olympics and pull out as adviser for the opening ceremony.

As these high profile boycotts indicate, our local decision on how to respond to the torch is part of a greater choice nations are making about how to respond to the Olympics this summer. Is boycotting the Olympics an effective way to push for reform in China? As with the torch, this decision is essentially a battle between a belief that the Olympics can promote human equality and a belief that it is promoting the Chinese regime. It might also be asked whether one could boycott the torch but not the Olympic competition. Some argue that taking a stance on the first necessitates following through on the second. Others say you can boycott the torch relay, as an event simply promoting China, while continuing to assess the Olympic competition because this offers a much more ambiguous mix of promotion and potential for change.

South Korea transformed

The International Olympic Commission (IOC), supported by the UN, gave the Olympics to Beijing believing that this could help to reform China’s human rights situation. They pointed to how the 1988 Seoul games helped transform South Korea from a military dictatorship to a democracy. China made strong promises to improve its human rights record. The IOC has stuck by their decision. Some would argue that this is corroding the organization’s reputation. They argue for now boycotting the games based principally on China’s failure to deliver these changes.

Chinese government oppression

Shortly after winning the games, Deputy Chinese Prime minister Li Lanqing declared that the victory encouraged the country to maintain its “healthy life” by combatting such problems as the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Hu-Jintau, the then vice president, argued that the victory made it crucial to fight separatists forces, such as Tibetan and minority activists, throughout the country. The police were instructed to launch a crack down on crime and since began forcibly evicting rural migrant workers, beggars, vagrants, and sex workers from Beijing. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the Chinese government’s “tightening chokehold against political activism,” arresting dissidents like Hu Jia, Chen Shuqing, Yang Xenshue, and Jiang Zhianghong.

The International Olympic Commission and many world leaders continue, however, to believe in the potential the Olympics has to be a positive force. They argue that China has not yet had enough time to show changes.

“One must never forget that China has a time-frame which is totally different from the rest of the world and progress can not always be measured by the same time standard,” IOC’s legal advisor Francois Carrard said.

“China is different” arguments are commonly used to justify treating China in a particular way. When deciding whether to boycott, we must ask how different China is from other countries and whether this difference can account for its difficulty in changing. South Korea’s move to democracy suggests that dramatic change can be made in seven years, but it is much smaller than China. Soviet Russia required a much longer time frame to break down its authoritarian mechanism.

Press scrutiny

Whilst the run up is important, it can be argued that the Olympics will not exert its full influence over China until the summer months. Then millions of foreign citizens and press will descend on Beijing, parading their values and subjecting the Chinese regime to close scrutiny. Many recognize the potential for change that still exists. Carrard recently declared that he is “convinced that when we look at this with the perspective of history, we will see that the Olympic Games will have been an opportunity for considerable progress.” Amnesty International spokesperson Mike Blakemore, who might have been expected to push for boycott, recently stated that we should continue to support the games because they offered a “fantastic opportunity” to discuss human rights issues.

The loss of this opportunity through a boycott arguably outweighs the loss which China would suffer, particularly if only some nations chose to boycott. IOC vice president Thomas Bach said boycotting the games “would be the wrong way because that will cut lines of communication.” On top of this is the fact that a boycott would deny many athletes the chance to compete in a competition they have been training for their whole lives. With athletes’ peak performance being so short, and the Olympics occurring every 4 years, for many athletes this might be their only opportunity to compete. Lowest on the list of losses, but from a pragmatic point of view, is the lost business an Olympic boycott would inflict. Some might argue that America cannot afford to boycott.

Would China even listen to a boycott? There is evidence to suggest that it would. Dissident Wei Jingsheng, who was imprisoned for 18 years, has said that his treatment and conditions in prison were directly related to protests made outside of China. The more fuss people made, the better his situation was. He argues China often uses the West’s lack of popular protest as an example of democracies failings. The Guardian’s Lawrence Donegan puts the counter argument succinctly as “the barbarians in Beijing couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks.” In his book The Political Olympics, Derek Hulme suggests that the former Soviet Union failed to get the envisioned message from America’s 1980 boycott. Instead they saw the lack of European backing for the boycott as a sign of western division. This warns of the danger that a boycott could push the Chinese Government to become more authoritarian and give them a symbol of western aggression to justify this.

A further question is whether America’s own human rights record allows it to pass judgments on China without showing moral hypocrisy.

US complicity in human rights violations

Although the US executes fewer people each year, America shares China’s continual application of the death penalty. CIA water boarding and wiretapping show that the American government has its equivalents of China’s torture and censorship techniques. The arrest and treatment of those at Guantanamo Bay is comparable to China’s detention of criminals without trial. While China has been criticized for its unlawful occupation of Tibet, America has occupied Iraq without the approval of the UN. Involvement in Iraq might be seen as a warning about America exercising judgments on foreign nations.

Others might equally argue that this is like saying somebody who’s done something wrong can’t then do anything right. America could possibly improve its human rights record by acting on this issue. The ‘let he who is without sin’ argument is an easy way to justify no country ever acting in the world sphere, because we have all been tainted by past crimes. Some would say progress can only be made on such issues based on the assumption that America, and China, can change their natures. One must also distinguish between the American government, which is directly implicated in human rights crimes, and the people who remain freer from such moral responsibility.

Some argue that if the world were to take a lenient stance on China, this could have a domino effect, removing the legitimacy foreign nations have for opposing human rights abuses in other countries. This argument suggests we cannot take a stand against the totalitarian regime in Burma, whilst simultaneously endorsing oppression in China. But acting on China could also set a contrasting precedent which would oblige the US to intervene in more countries. Could the US protest against Chinese occupation of Tibet, whilst not speaking out about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories?

Those who are in favor of boycotting the Olympics also ask, wouldn’t supporting the Beijing Olympics be co-operating with actions of a totalitarian regime? This outcry comes from a confusion between engagement and acquiescence. It is the same outcry which Sen. Barack Obama recently met with when he said that he would speak with Fidel Castro.

Terror talks

Last week, the Guardian UK ran an excellent article entitled “Terror talks: would contacting al-Qaida be a step too far?” It highlighted how the discussions about Northern Ireland have proved the reforming value of close contact with those involved in actions we might condemn. It identifies how refusing such contact normally tends to push those involved to more extreme viewpoints. Importantly however, the article distinguished between being in the same room as such figures and agreeing with them.

With such complex factors and predictions about how China might react, deciding whether or not to boycott the Games is not straightforward. Foreign nations and their citizens should continue to engage with the Olympics, but on their own terms. They should engage in events, but do so assessing whether their engagement is supporting an Olympic spirit that can improve human rights, or a Chinese oppressive regime. They should be prepared to change their attitude to the games in response to the conclusions drawn on this.

Nicholas Olczak

Bio Nicholas Olczak is a freelance writer who comes from (the original) Boston in England, but who normally chooses to travel the world. He has contributed to publications in Hong Kong and the USA and enjoys delving into anything political or cultural. He currently lives on one of San Francisco's many hills.

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Comments for Should we boycott the Beijing Olympic Games? are now closed.

  1. No one can stop China’s Rising.
    embrace China, otherwise, you a loser..

  2. Human rights should come first, ahead of everything else for at the end of the day games do not equate with a cause as important and dire as helping our fellow man.

    I had issues with Beiing being chosen to begin with.

    Funny to stumble upon your article today. I just now spoke with one of my best friends who is a Tibetan Buddhist monk, a well known lama, who called to report the latest news on his family. They are nomads and in a remote region of Tibet and, because of that, are safe. But they cannot move, are confined to where they are as even that remote area has been overtaken by the military. There are thousands of Chinese military all over Tibet, the jails are full of Tibetans, torture is out of control and Tibetans are being killed left and right. These were his words from first hand accounts from his family.

    It is indeed shameful that the torch is passing through our city and shame on Chu and Erslbend for their lack of compassion and outright cold hearted and callous ways. Here’s to their being voted out of office come November!

    Thank you for a well written and informative article!