Tuesday, March 18, 2008

To boycott the 2008 Olympics or not to boycott?

Frankly, I think it's the wrong question. I remain unconvinced that a move to boycott the Beijing Olympics is a wise course of action -- for seven reasons.

First of all, any boycott of Beijing won't be a universal boycott, it will only be some Western countries that choose not go.

Second, staying in the games continues to keep the spotlight on China, whereas withdrawing will actually serve to take media attention away from China.

Third, a boycott is truly the "nuclear option." These games mean the world to the Chinese. And consider that the average Chinese person is probably even more uninformed about world opinion than your average American, so he or she won't understand our justifications for the boycott (see this post about the Olympic boycott question and Burma).

Fourth, as long as the athletes are still planning to go, the world can pressure China to open up and urge it to fulfill its commitments regarding human rights. Also importantly, actually holding the games will highlight the unacceptably high environmental price that Chinese pay for its truly unsustainable development.

Fifth, suppose some countries go ahead with an Olympic boycott. Then what? The boycott by Western countries of the 1980 Moscow Olympics did not make any difference for the people of Afghanistan.*

Sixth, if we were serious about forcing China to respect human rights, as citizens and consumers we would be pressuring our own companies and multinationals to ensure that Chinese suppliers and factories enforce basic environmental and health standards. We would put our money where our mouth is. It's time we did that. Furthermore, standing up for the right kind of engagement seems preferable to disengagement. Which brings me to my last and main point.

Seventh, an Olympic boycott strikes me as brazenly unimaginative response to China's conduct. There are more opportunities for progress in a relationship when you have a relationship -- i.e. through engagement. But this does not mean the engagement has to be on China's terms. Here are a few alternatives that might well prove far more effective at influencing China than an Olympic boycott ever would:
  • How about threatening a boycott of the corporate sponsors of the Olympics? These multinational companies have far more sway with the Chinese government than the athletes. Let them sweat.

  • Regardless of IOC regulations, individual athletes can -- and I expect will -- make some strong statements. Think Jessie Owens and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.**

  • The games are an opportunity for China's people to demonstrate. If the world media is there in full force, it helps to give the Chinese people a platform should they choose to speak out.
Instead of expending our energy debating a boycott, I say let's get creative.
* 1980 games were boycotted by the US and other Western countries in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
** "In 1936 Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the United States in the Summer Olympics. Adolf Hitler was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany." But thanks to the Olympic movement one black American single-handedly shattered Nazi propaganda which "promoted concepts of 'Aryan racial superiority' and depicted ethnic Africans as inferior." (Wiki)Photos: Jessie Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Wiki).

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