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No, the boycott is a salve for liberal consciences
The Olympic torch parade, complete with thuggish blue-track-suited Chinese secret police, was disrupted in various places. This has demonstrated that there is worldwide anger at the human rights violations in Tibet. Unfortunately, this will not have any effect on the Chinese—they will continue with their regularly scheduled ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide.
What does a boycott of the Beijing Olympics achieve? It is not clear. Did South Africa’s apartheid regime collapse because of the sports boycott against them? No, nor did the Soviet empire because of the 1980 Olympic boycott.
Olympic boycotts are therefore not sufficient. They may also not be necessary. Paradoxically, all the energy that goes into grass-roots organization of such a boycott may lead to “compassion fatigue,” so that more substantive steps—those that have a real impact on China—are less likely to materialize. In that sense, it is merely palliative for the conscience of liberals in the West.
While activists may feel that they did something for the cause of Tibet, the reality is that none of the major sporting powers will pull out their athletes. This is partly because it would lead to heartbreak for those athletes. And partly because most of these nations have strong economic links with China, and they do like all those low-priced goods coming in, keeping a lid on inflation.
That is the key: it is only if these countries make a real sacrifice by imposing trade sanctions with China that the message will get through. Without this, the Chinese will merely “lose face.” They are already brought up on a steady diet of arch-jingoism and xenophobia, and this will simply bolster it.
China, like Nazi Germany, has a mythology of great glory and great humiliation, and the attendant psychoses that go with this explosive combination. They see themselves as the Master Race, the Middle Kingdom, the masters of the universe, and the rest of the world as gwailo, mere foreign devils.
The Chinese dream of Manifest Destiny and the inevitable Han domination of the Eurasian land mass. And they will justify their actions by saying they are only doing what whites did in the Americas, South Africa, and Australia in terms of wiping out native cultures ruthlessly while telling them that they were being “civilized.” The Hans will be equally merciless.
The Olympic boycott is futile and counter-productive. The torch relay reminds me of the imperial aswamedha-yaga in India, where vassal kings paid obeisance to the emperor’s horse as it wandered freely. Since no country is willing to obstruct the Chinese imperial horse, thus inviting the vengeance of the evil empire, let the activists not delude themselves with this sound and fury.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Palo Alto, Calif.
Yes, the boycott is to gather momentum for Tibet
You may disagree as to whether the Olympics should be politicized, whether human rights trump athletes’ rights, or whether boycotts in principle are effective. One thing for sure, however, is that the boycott movement has given the world a vital crash course on China’s human rights record.
China is rightly an economic and geopolitical superpower. This is precisely why bilateral and U.N. diplomacy slams into major hurdles on the issue of Tibet. Leaders of today’s powerful countries are sitting on the fence, declaring that they will be no-shows at the Olympics yet publicly preventing boycotters from acting.
Economic sanctions on China would hurt the dissenting countries disproportionately more, while the rest of the world happily absorbs China’s market. Since China is a major funder of the U.S. debt, the U.S. in particular has less leverage in the matter. Furthermore, Chinese hyper-nationalism and anti-Western sentiments are on the rise. On this point, Rajeev and I agree.
However, the individuals boycotting the Olympics are uniquely capable of working toward Tibet’s freedom. For one, individuals do not carry a government’s burden of maintaining economic interests or strategic ties. We are free to take a stance, while politicians are obligated to brood over political consequences.
Secondly, people’s voices can transcend nationalities, consolidating a global opinion not to be dismissed as a mere “white man’s imperialist burden” or “Tibetan ingratitude.”
Most importantly, torch relay protests and letter writing by citizens are themselves exercises of consumer boycott. When millions of viewers pledge not to watch the Games, the effects on the Olympics sponsors and Beijing economy will reverberate.
Boycotting is therefore an opportunity and a responsibility. It is also the motor for more substantive government actions. Without our voices, profits and political convenience may take precedence in our foreign policies with China. In addition to mounting external pressure, international governments must empower Chinese and Tibetans from within. They could promote media freedom by restricting Google and Yahoo!’s cooperation in China’s internet censorship. Similarly, they should insist that China comply with international treaties such as the U.N. Convention against Torture.
The Olympic boycott has spread awareness of Tibet like fire. To continue to be effective, individual boycotters should not make sweeping, alienating anti-Chinese statements. The boycott must target particular grievances: the lack of constructive dialogues with Dalai Lama or specific Chinese policies in Tibet. Activists must say, “We stand to boycott the Olympics unless…” to encourage China to be a responsible world power. With boycott momentum at its peak, there is no better time to catalyze negotiation between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.
Chloe Chien is a recent graduate of Duke University.