April 22, 2008

Seven Years Later, Same Government, Same Policies

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We dropped the ball big time on this one. When the International Olympic Committee gave Beijing the 2008 Olympics, China was well-known for its abysmal human rights record. While the decision was being made, advocates for Beijing said that China would improve itself for the Olympics. They cited the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which was closely tied to South Korea’s process of democratization. Unfortunately, they failed to cite the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where several months before the Games started, Mexico’s authoritarian government brutally repressed student protestors. Democracy has a complicated and often uncorrelated relationship with the Olympics. But it certainly should come as no surprise that now, in 2008, China is not a democracy, does not have a model human rights record and does not adequately integrate minorities into the country’s national life.
But that decision was made, and only a fool would have bet money on a rapid transformation of the Chinese political structure. So now what additional justification does the West have to boycotting the Olympics that it didn’t have in 2001? One could argue the recent violence in Tibet is a reason, but in reality recent events are only symptoms of a systemic problem. It shouldn’t be a surprise, given the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or the more recent repression of the Falun Gong, that the Chinese government would go to extreme measures to protect itself from any challengers.
One thing that has changed since 2001 though is the investment that the Chinese people have made in the games. There is a real excitement among Chinese over the prospect of the Olympics, over the prestige that it will give their country. Boycotting the Olympics will only cause an upsurge in nationalism that will do much to harm the American relationship with China, as well as American economic interests in China. In recent days a wave of anti-French protests have occurred across China, mainly consisting of Chinese positioning themselves outsides stores of the French retailer, Carrefour. They are protesting the handling of the torch rally through Paris as well as making (baseless) claims that the retailer supports Tibetan independence. Expect such nationalism to exponentially grow in case of a boycott of the entire Olympics, or even if the U.S. were to boycott the opening ceremony. In short, it’s too late. And if we were concerned about human rights we should have known better. If our collective moral conscience bothers us so much right now, why was it silent before?