James Fallows, an American journalist based in China, blogs his response to this question, here and here. Fallows makes two points against an Olympic boycott:
1. It's extremely unlikely to sway China to change it's policy on Burma: "There is almost no reason to think that the ultimatum would work. You show me someone who has studied Chinese politics and thinks the leadership responds well to outright “or else!” threats, and I’ll show you, umm, an unusual scholar or diplomat. "
2. It is likely to be perceived as an unprovoked and hostile act by the Chinese that is likely to make the Chinese people hate us.
What do you think? I'll say this: Fallows brings up one of the important facts about the times we live in. Depending on the media, different segments of the world's population have very different views of what's happening. Just as the Chinese don't see what happening in Burma, Americans themselves are seldom privy to reports that show Israel in an unfavorable light. America' media is also afflicted with Propaganda Headline Syndrome (explained here), in which White House spin is reported as if it is real news.
It would be perceived as an unprovoked slap, too. Part of the reason, obviously, is that the Chinese media aren’t carrying the slaughter-in Rangoon footage now appearing in the West. But, to put it mildly, the population has in no way been prepared for the idea that what its government calls “non-interference” in Burma has become so dire an indictment in the world’s eyes that its years-in the-planning Olympic festivities must be called off. In numbers again: for each 1000 Westerners who think the Burmese outrages have reached that point, one person in China will think so. Is such an embittering step toward China – not just its regime but also its population – one that other countries are willing to take? I don’t think so. It is not a matter of (to use the inevitable term) kow-towing to the Chinese leadership. It simply is recognizing the view of the Chinese population.
The U.S. was way too slow to think about the consequences of alienating a billion or so of the world’s Muslims with its Iraq and “global war on terror” policies. I think it would at least pause before alienating another billion or so people.
It seems we need to find ways to get the whole world on the same page; we need a mechanism to make it easier for people to see things as they really are.
Instead of pouring so much into weapons it cannot use, how about the US develop improved regional information networks and transmitters that are impervious to local censorship? For starters, the US ought to Voice of America as if it were as important as any missile defense system. VOA is an decisive offensive weapon -- one that has actually helped citizens to topple undemocratic regimes in the past. But after six years of the Bush Administration, VOA is a bit of a disgrace (as I show in this post).
Perhaps securing unfettered access to YouTube for the whole world is the answer. . .