[Overseas view] Don’t boycott Beijing GamesWithin a year, the Olympic Games will begin in Beijing. The Chinese have been preparing for it for years with enthusiasm and pride. They hope to make it a symbolic triumph, a prestigious success that reinforces the image of a rising China.
For the Chinese regime, there will be two precisely different competitions. The first deals with the very organization of the Games.
Infrastructure (hotels, transportation, stadiums, swimming pools and gymnasiums) must be ready and built to state-of-the-art standards.
The challenge is to impress the whole world before the competition begins, to show off China’s excellence and abilities.
The Chinese regime has already launched a huge communications operation to teach its population how to welcome foreigners.
The second competition concerns the sports events.
Beijing is eager to climb to the top and win more gold medals than the United States.
During the Cold War, the Olympic Games were a component of the wider East-West struggle. The Soviet Union and the United States continued their ideological battles in stadiums. Sports victories were supposed to be a proof of their political regimes’ superiority. Now, China is the one who wants to be Washington’s No. 1 competitor in sports as well as in any other field.
Many voices have called for the boycott of these Games to protest China’s support to the Sudanese government in the Darfur tragedy or China’s general attitude regarding human rights. In 2001, immediately after the selection of Beijing for the Games, many activists protested the supposed implied consent to human rights violations by endorsing China as an Olympic host. Some have even dared compare the Beijing Games to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This comparison is not only inaccurate, but shameful.
Even if Beijing still has to make progress when it comes to human rights, the comparison with the Nazi regime is an insult to Hitler’s victims. We must also be reminded that the 1936 Games were not exactly a complete success for the Nazi regime. Sure, Hitler marched in gorgeous new stadiums, acclaimed by enthusiastic crowds. But this vision shocked public opinion outside Germany and signaled the true nature of the regime, still not widely known at that time. On top of that, the four gold medals won by the black American athlete Jessie Owens was a slap in the face of the racist theory of Aryan superiority.
The Olympic Games are, after the World Cup, the most-viewed event worldwide. Public opinion is much more important in international relations today than it was 70 years ago. So what could be thought of these calls for a boycott?
Simply put, there is confusion between posturing and effectiveness. It’s comforting to call for a boycott. One can easily take a moral position and be regarded as a leading figure, courageous and generous.
But the real problem consists in assessing the effectiveness of such an action. Would a boycott lead to an improvement in the situation of Chinese citizens? Would it change Beijing’s international behavior? One could think that there is room for Beijing’s progress in these two directions. Would a boycott help achieve these goals?
It is far from being a probability.
First, we must admit that China is progressing on these issues. Its policies receive much less criticism than it did during the Mao period, a time far from idyllic as far as human rights are concerned.
Indeed, no one could seriously deny that it is much easier and nicer to live in modern China than in Mao’s China, in terms of freedom and material comfort.
A boycott would isolate China and lead it to cut itself off from the outside world. Chinese leaders might feel free to treat their own population as they want. If they are rejected, it will no longer be worthwhile to make efforts to alleviate foreign criticism.
Organizing such a visible event highlights one’s behavior. This is precisely what authoritarian regimes do not like, because it opens national policies to international scrutiny. Nowadays, when you organize a top world event, you also accept thousands of journalists, visitors and so on. Under these conditions, it is much more difficult to hide misbehavior. Hosting the Olympic Games is leading Beijing to moderate its internal and international policies. Being selected host of the Games was a new step forward in China’s integration into international society.
To be sure, it won’t be enough to turn China into a true democracy. But who could think that a boycott would succeed in reaching this legitimate goal? On the contrary, it would backfire.
We may just observe that democrats and human rights militants in China are not asking for a boycott. They need and call for external help in their struggle.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
BY Pascal Boniface