Beijing Olympics

Political Games

Tuesday 22 April 2008, by JAYATI GHOSH

DESPITE all protestations to the contrary, sports have never been apolitical. And among sports, the Olympic Games have probably been the most political of all, from their origins in ancient Greece when different city states used them as another means of war to the more recent episodes when either the host country or other nations have used the events as a means of making geopolitical statements or settling political scores.

So it is no surprise that several months before they are actually held, the Beijing Olympics scheduled for August 2008 have already become the focus of so much hectic political activity in different parts of the world. Even so, the nature of the various protests around this particular event, the different features of China’s reality and the Chinese government’s policies that have been criticised, and the ferocity of the moral righteousness that has accompanied the criticism do cause surprise.

The surprise is also because in the recent past, the Olympics have been largely non-controversial at least with respect to the location even if there have been other controversial issues related to the sports themselves (such as doping of athletes and the like).

Yet the Beijing Olympics – the first Olympic Games to be held in the developing world in 20 years and only the third after Mexico City in 1968 and Seoul in 1988 – has become the object of almost continuous protest for several months now. These protests have occurred on the basis of a wide range of constantly shifting accusations against China.

The government of China had obviously seen the Beijing Olympics as an enormous international public relations exercise, marking the country’s recent emergence as a major player on the world’s economic and political stage. The games also have internal socio-political implications for China: achievements in sports, creation of glittering new infrastructure and impressive hospitality would become matters of national pride and self-confidence.

Yet the carping and the denigration from the rest of the world began early and have not stopped although the professed reasons for the criticism have varied. It began more than a year ago with some athletes and sportspersons expressing fears about high air pollution levels in Beijing, which they claimed would adversely affect their performance at the event and possibly even their health. The Chinese government’s promises to address air pollution concerns by the time the games begin were not taken seriously.

Several high-profile athletes, such as Ethiopian marathon runner Haile Gebrselassie, and some tennis players declared that they would not take part because of these concerns. Next, there were comments on the “poor quality” of water and urban sanitation in Beijing even though these are actually better than in most cities of the developing world.

Then the criticism became overtly political. It began with a focus on China’s foreign policy. The Chinese government was attacked for maintaining relations with the military junta in Myanmar, especially after the crackdown on the protest by monks in late 2007.

Surprisingly, even eminent personages such as Desmond Tutu made statements suggesting that if China did not take a stance against the Myanmar rulers, he would “join a campaign to boycott the Beijing Olympics”. This threat was made even though many other governments, including the South African government that Tutu has been part of, did not make any open declarations at the time condemning the Myanmar government.

Then it was China’s attitude to Sudan and the trouble in the Darfur region that came under attack. China was accused of providing financial and diplomatic support to the government of Sudan, which in turn was supporting militia groups against a separatist uprising in Darfur province. The humanitarian crisis in Darfur suddenly became China’s fault even though China was only one among many countries that avoided taking sides on this internal conflict. Hollywood stars jumped onto this bandwagon, with actress Mia Farrow calling for a boycott, and Steven Spielberg resigned from his post as art adviser to the Beijing Olympics on this count. Yet it is rare to hear of any Hollywood stars (including these two) making public protests against the United States government’s open support for so many murderous dictatorships across the world, in the past or at present.

And now it is the turn of Tibet to become the focus of anti-China protest. The Tibetan struggle for independence is around five decades old, and the recognition of most countries in the world that Tibet is an integral part of China is of even longer duration. The “government-in-exile” of the Dalai Lama in India has been active in keeping alive global perceptions of Tibetan demands. These obviously intensified during and after the recent violent protests in Tibet, which were quelled with force by the authorities.

But even after that violence subsided, this half-century-old struggle has now become the latest weapon of China critics, and the protests and attempts to disrupt the Olympic flame on its journey across several countries have been focussed mainly on the Tibet issue. This most recent assault by moralistic protestors on what should be an international symbol of harmony has been based on the flimsiest of pretexts and has been followed by an astonishing series of calls for boycott, especially in the developed countries.

Note that nothing has really changed on the ground in Tibet in the past month. All that has happened is a few very public and prominent protests by some Tibetan exiles and their supporters in different parts of the world, which have been given much media attention and relatively sympathetic treatment by local authorities.

Yet suddenly there are calls from all over the world to resolve the Tibet problem. Such calls have come from people whose own governments have less-than-admirable records on the human rights front. Various European leaders who have systematically encouraged and promoted avaricious and authoritarian regimes in their ex-colonies now feel that they must chastise China and threaten to boycott the Olympics.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has apparently made his attendance at the opening ceremony conditional upon “an end to violence against the population and the release of political prisoners, light to be shed on the events in Tibet and the opening of dialogue with the Dalai Lama”. Other leaders such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have already declared that they will not attend.

In the U.S., presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called upon George Bush to boycott the opening ceremony because of the denial of “human rights” in Tibet. It is interesting that no one seems to ask what Hillary Clinton has to say of the human rights of those held in U.S. prisons in Guantanamo Bay, including those who were abducted by the Americans from their own country in secret “renditions” to undergo torture on the flimsy grounds of being associated with terrorist activities. In any case, it hardly behoves those who sent troops to Iraq as part of a murderous imperialist invasion and destroyed human security in that country to speak of human rights violations in Tibet.
It is likely that humanitarian concerns were not uppermost in Hillary Clinton’s mind. Rather, it was an attempt at China-bashing to pander to the grievances of those Americans who are convinced that they are losing jobs to Chinese workers and are worried by that country’s recent rise. Significantly, even Barack Obama, the other Democratic presidential hopeful, has duly called upon Bush to boycott the opening ceremony.

The double standards and false moral superiority of those who are currently using the Olympics to attack China are quite striking. But they still do not explain the question that immediately strikes one: Why? Why is there such anger against China, to the extent that any excuse is immediately seized upon to pour scorn or opprobrium on it and somehow diminish its attempts to hold the Olympic Games? What is the subtext of this rash of international disapproval? Or, as a Beijing resident asked a foreign journalist: “Why do they hate us so much?”

It could be that it is not hatred that is driving all this frenzy of criticism so much as deep disquiet. Disquiet about the very features that China seeks to showcase in the Olympics: its newfound economic strength and continuing international competitiveness; its enormous and relatively disciplined population with huge potential for the future; the currently stable polity and the rapid expansion of infrastructure.

All these can be a source of pride for Chinese, but they can also be threatening to the outside world, particularly to imperialism and its allies. Of course, the perceived lack of internal political democracy makes it easy for the outside world to find flaws with the system within which all this is occurring.
But the basic cause of external unease is probably not the absence of democracy in China as leaders in the West have always been able to condone the lack of democracy elsewhere when it suits them strategically. Rather, it is probably because these same leaders feel threatened by the emergence of a new power and a relative diminution of their own geopolitical influence. It should be borne in mind that apparent concern for “human rights” has now become the chosen instrument of those who wish to break up big states in the developing world.

So the current cascade of censure and the high moral tone taken by international leaders and activists – particularly those in the North – may reflect a deeper tendency in international relations, a disinclination to cede power at any level to upstart nations that should know that their place belongs in the lower rungs of the global ladder.

China is particularly disturbing because of its sheer size. It is big enough that its rise would do more than damage existing hierarchies – it could threaten to overturn the ladder itself.

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