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Society, Politics & Law

The beleaguered Olympic torch

Updated Thursday, 8th May 2008

With the Olympic torch attracting protests around the globe, Giles Mohan asks what an Olympic boycott would achieve.

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I’ve just returned from two weeks in the US with my colleague Dr May Tan-Mullins. Each day we read reports of the passage of the beleaguered Olympic torch on its inappropriately named ‘journey of harmony’. And even as I write this, protestors have clashed with the authorities in Seoul. In cities across the globe we saw diversions, protests, and heavy-handed ‘torch guards’ man-handling people out of the way. In my last blog I was talking about China’s role in Sudan and Darfur. The issue now is Tibet, although it’s often wrapped up together with China’s broader human rights record at home and abroad. 

The Olympic Torch making its way through London Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Francesco Carucci |
The torch makes its way through London

The Tibet issue is complex, but is seen as an internal issue with many Chinese supportive of their state’s stance on Tibet. When I was in the US various head of state pulled out of the Games’ opening ceremony. Hardly outright condemnation, but a symbolic gesture nonetheless. Others have called for a boycott of the Olympics to shed light on China’s occupation of Tibet.

The call for a boycott is coming from a wide range of groups, including US Senators, Hollywood actors, international journalists, Tibetans in exile, Burmese activists, and Taiwanese political parties. They all use China’s human rights abuses domestically and internationally as the reason and believe a boycott would highlight these and shame China into reform as well as hurting China economically through lost revenue. But would a boycott work?

Darfur protests in Washington Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: May Tan-Mullins
Darfur protestors in Washington

First, we need to look at the interests and agendas of some of these groups. For some in the US, while the headline is human rights abuses, there is list of other misdemeanours which go beyond human rights and are about US strategic interests (e.g. China’s support of Venezuela’s left-wing President Hugo Chavez, China’s blocking of sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council, and the fact that China has allegedly been ‘spying’ on the US). And some sections of the Taiwanese Olympic boycott lobby have deeper political roots going back to China’s ‘One China’ policy and its denial of the legitimacy of Taiwan. So, in looking at a potential boycott let’s also look at the geoeconomic and geopolitical motives behind the proponents.

Second, history suggests that Olympic boycotts (in 1956, 1976, 1980 and 1984) haven’t achieved much, and often don’t achieve what they set out to do. If the issue is human rights abuses then how can anyone know that a boycott will lead to democracy in China and more ethical foreign policy? In the Tibet case an international boycott might only strengthen the Chinese peoples’ stance on Tibet, so more international dialogue might be better of the kind advocated by the Dalai Lama. Overseas, China’s role in the world is mediated bilaterally and multilaterally so how would a boycott of a sporting event work alongside these other, more lasting political institutions and relationships? A boycott might be a useful tactical device at a time of international attention on China, but if it is not part of a wider strategy then it’s unlikely to work.

Third, there is also an argument that beyond the high level state agendas and lack of apparent reforms that the Olympics have in fact led to a political and cultural shift in urban China, with a blossoming of civil society organisations that have been critical of the state. So, if we look at the actual political changes, as opposed to those represented in Western media, it may be that China is changing as a result of the Olympics.

Finally, there is the hypocrisy of scapegoating China to serve western agendas. If we are serious about boycotting China then similar public actions need to be taken against all rights abusers and not just China. Once again, singling out China in this manner serves to reinforce the spurious democratic credentials of many western governments. Moreover, the western firms who are heavily involved in the Olympics (e.g. GEC, Visa) are wary about upsetting a lucrative market and so would not support a boycott.





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