Is an Olympic Boycott the Answer?

Posted by Filed Under: News and Opinion

Flag Lowering, TiananmenAnyone with a hint of news savvy knows by now that the Olympics are in trouble.
Since last writing, we’ve witnessed the protests in Tibet, the Western backlash against Chinese “suppression,” and the Chinese backlash against the Western backlash. After the riots many Westerners, including some prominent leaders, have (fairly and unfairly) savaged China for its treatment of Tibetans. The response, and the confusion, illustrates the deep complexity of China issues that goes well beyond this one event, and that continues to foretell a loud and angry summer with the world’s best athletes caught in the middle.

Fueled by the protests in Tibet and along the Olympic torch relay route, the Great Chaotic Media Swirl is filled with debate about how best to protest, where to protest, when to protest, and who should protest. Yet, this loud chatter is drowning out the most important question: should we protest?

As sympathetic as I am with those outraged over aspects of the Chinese government, I remain unconvinced that a boycott is the answer.

The last time we boycotted a Games was during the Cold War and the opponent was the Soviet Union. Anyone who equates the Chinese Communist Party of today with the Soviets of 1980 is engaging in sloppy history. Today’s Beijing is, in many ways, more akin to 1920s New York than 1980s Moscow. The problem is separating an action against a government we disagree with from the people it governs. The government is restricting the press, not the people. The government is arresting people without due process, not the people. And as crazy as it sounds, overall, things are improving in China.

The State of Things

In 1978, the Communists made a Faustian bargain—development at the cost of control. Their initial minor moves to open the market have, through various twists and turns, snowballed out of their control and into the capitalistic juggernaut everyone now simultaneously admires and fears. The government has had to remove its tendrils from day-to-day life, as capitalism loses its efficiency if individuals have to constantly report to the government. The result has been a vast expansion of personal space, privacy, individual rights and freedom for the average Chinese citizen.

Since then, despite the Chinese government’s continued violations of our sense of right and wrong, China has changed in a way that, taking a long view, we should applaud. Hundreds of millions of people have been brought out of poverty and, just as importantly, there’s hope. Hope that you can have your own house, a good job with security and maybe even a pension. To many, this is the most important freedom. It is more than their fathers and their father’s fathers and their father’s father’s fathers ever had.

So as we discuss how to continue to push the government toward much needed change, it is important to recognize the positives and to realize that the Chinese people are, by and large, happy with their government. The West wants to punish the government for its transgressions, but the danger of such a response is the possibility of reacting to what it doesn’t fully understand in a way that ultimately alienates the constituency it is attempting to protect.

This complication makes it difficult to know what is right to do. The government that created the Great Fire Wall of China also created the largest sustained economic boom in human history and has given a billion people hope. As the Games are the “coming out party” for the Chinese government, they are also the “coming out party” for the Chinese people—an imprimatur for their achievements, collectively, and their position, globally. Like it or not, these Games are more the people’s than the government’s and the Chinese people are proud.

The day Beijing was awarded the Olympic Games, millions poured into Tiananmen to celebrate. It was the largest spontaneous gathering in China since Tiananmen 1989. If Western countries boycott the Olympics, the people in China are not going to see a nuanced critique of press freedom and an encouragement for greater judicial transparency. They’re going to see an arrogant snub, and worse.

So, what is to be done?

I certainly cannot advocate that Farah Fawcett silence her cause. Some things are just wrong and if nobody speaks out, who’s to stop them? Throwing people into prison without representation or justification is never something we can say is “ok,” nor overlook because of the moral sanctity of synchronized swimming. I also don’t believe athletes should be muzzled, if only because such actions violate the values that we proselytize to the world. But those who do feel the need to speak out and to use these Games as a platform should consider how to make clear that their anger is not at the people, but at the Communist Party and should aim to do so in a way that cannot be spun or altered by the Chinese press.

With the US press’ zeal to beat the anti-China drum, regardless of any good intentions, we’re headed for a summer of miscommunication and acrimony with the possible outcome of damaged political relations and a decrease in understanding. Maybe this is necessary. Maybe it’s good. After all, we can’t refrain from doing something we think is right just because we’re afraid of hurting a few (billion) feelings. But, even while there are no simple solutions, a good start might be to go into all of this with a more open mind than we collectively seem to have right now. Regardless, this is going to get a lot louder before it’s done.

  1. crossn81 on April 28th at 5:33 pm

    Thanks for the perspective. I have been back and forth on the issue over the last few months. I would agree with pretty much all that you have said and would add that it isn’t fair to our athletes to boycott the games. Bill Rodgers on a podcast awhile back said something to the effect that everyone gets hurt by boycotting the games but especially the athletes. I think if an athlete wants to boycott the games or make a stand ala Eric Liddel (Chariots of Fire) that is their choice.

    What I’m worried about is China imposing itself onto athletes forcing them to be silent or not allowing them to express themselves. If they try to arrest Ryan Hall for praising God for winning the gold medal or something similar then we have a bigger problem (in my opinion).

    The games are about fostering good will and brother hood. We need to make our protests known and do what we can to help the Chinese government see the harm they are causing, but when the Games begin it should all be focused on the athletes and their “friendly” competition.

    crossn81’s last blog post..Race Day: Get in Gear 10K

  2. ryan on April 28th at 6:27 pm

    Hey! Thanks for the comment. I think that’s a great idea about a third-way for protesting …. athletes can make up their own mind about whether it is right or wrong to boycott. After all, given the voracious appetite for China- Olympics- Suppression stories so far, there will be no shortage of attention for any athlete that chooses to go that route and, I believe, not much the Chinese government can do about it (and the possibility that the athlete would be a niche hero back in his or her home country).

    That said, while I think there’s an outside shot some prominent athlete wil boycott or protest, I think I worry less about what China is going to do to such an athlete (and I worry more about what the protesters will try to do). Considering how much is riding on these Games for the CCP and that there will be a small army of Western media there to document every whisper, it’s my instinct that no government handler would be foolish enough to try to suppress, much less arrest, any athlete. Condemn, disparage, vilify? Yes. Physically punish? Unlikely. Stranger things have happened, but it would be a supremely colossal blunder that would ensure, no matter what else happened, that the Games would go down in flames. What I think is more likely is behind-the-scenes pressure from Olympic committees, like the IOC, on their athletes (or by the government on those committees) for them to be quiet.

    However, while I believe that the CCP knows better than to try to apply their standards on foreign athletes within range of a mic or a camera, I do wonder how much they’ll be able to live up to their pledge of allowing openness for foreign reporters (Chinese reporters, of course, will be a constrained as usual).

    They have said they will not limit what is reported and how it is reported … which is nice to say well in advance of the Games, but how quickly will the instinct to suppress kick in the first time a muckraking Western journalist wanders into the Northwest and finds a Muslim dissident with a compelling tale of suppression? Or how about something more subtle … what about journalists that choose to probe more deeply into the migrant workers who were forcibly removed to make way for the Games? Or citizens pushed out for the Three Gorges Dam? Or someone tracking down some of the “slaves” from the brick-factory story from last year?

    In this case my instinct is that the Chinese government will find it very difficult to learn to relax on the fly and I think there probably will be some controversy regarding attempts to control the media. Parts of the Chinese government are clearly unaccustomed to dealing with such a rowdy press corps (well, to be honest, a press corps that doesn’t receive its talking points in advance) and the odds of them doing so without incident are much lower.

    On another note, I will be in Beijing for the beginning of the Olympics, so, if I am still welcome, I will try to write in and give my impressions of the scene on the ground.


  3. Mark Iocchelli on April 29th at 7:53 am

    This is an outstanding, balanced piece, Ryan. Thank you.

  4. 21stCenturyMom on April 29th at 12:35 pm

    That was a very interesting piece and I appreciate your attempt at balance and fairness. However, I think you missed a few things. First of all, where did you get this from ” to realize that the Chinese people are, by and large, happy with their government.” I’m not so sure about that and I believe there is a fair amount of unrest in China due to oppressive government policies. In any case I wouldn’t make a blanket statement about the hapiness of the Chinese people as a whole.

    I have some significant issues with China being granted the games, chief among them the horrendous quality of the air over there. China is opening a coal plant a week and their air is fouled and black. They have also taken to usig their new found affluence to buy cars which they get in and just drive around the country in groups on idle tours. Athletes talk about how you run in China and before you know it you are blowing black snot rockets. Why should athletes from all over the world be subjected to that?

    And here’s another one. The US government works double time to deny a woman’s right to choose staunchly defending the baby’s right to life and preserving life and the sanctity of life but in China women are forced, by the government, to have abortions every day. The government reserves the right to control the population by forcing women to terminate their viable pregnancies. Where is the US government s outrage over that?

    You got one thing right – it’s all about capitalism and I’m sure many millions of Chinese people are better off financially now than they once were – but at what price?

  5. ryan on April 29th at 2:02 pm

    Hi 21st Century Mom,

    While you’re right it’s subjective and therefore pretty insufficient, I get the “happy with the government” based largely upon my time in China (almost two years) and my studies. However, you’re right that a blanket statement like that hardly does justice to the complexity of China and the incredible inequality that is developing there.

    There are, indeed, thousands of protests in China every year and the scale and intensity of them are increasing. Most are in rural areas from people who are angry with their local governments and their local officials (and for the fact that they’re not getting richer). I emphasize local because, at least so far, the anger for the “local guv” hasn’t translated fully into anger at the “national guv.” Is this because people realize that protesting against the national government is too dangerous and therefore hold back? Perhaps. It’s a great question and one that the China-watching community struggles with … what do those protests mean, how important are they? how significant are they nationally?

    That said, I am pretty comfortable stating that most Chinese, nevertheless, think they’re on the right path as a country. If the government said, “ok, that’s it, we’re done” there would be a lot of disenchantment, but I think most of what I saw over there was a long-view perspective and a recognition that things are getting better and will (hopefully) continue to do so. If things were static, I may agree with you, but they’re not (of course that comes with the caveat that I was in the cities, which have disproportionately benefited from the economic policies).

    Additionally I don’t agree with the “at what price” comment … it’s not like they traded freedom of speech for freedom to spend. It’s important to remember that in 1978 there was neither money nor freedom and while I personally wouldn’t argue it, many might argue that before the Communists there was neither money, freedom nor stability. It sounds like you’re looking at it as a trade-off (as if they gave up something to get success) whereas I think it’s more accurate to look at it as an upward slope (although it’s been a lot more upward for some than for others). In almost every single measure you can think of, including some of the real lingering baddies like due process and press freedom, there has been what we would call progress. I’ve always felt that you’re going to see real powerful civic activism in China once that slope tapers off a little, but right now it’s just going up and there is more freedom, so why would you mess with success? That’s the logic, at least as I saw it, and that’s what I mean by them being by-and-large in favor of the government. If the government stops bringing improvement (or continues to fail the rural people, as it is now), then we may see some real impetus for change, as we did during Tiananmen 1989 where the original impetus for all that unrest was skyrocketing inflation.

    Two other quick thoughts … it’s important to note that Chinese media does not show many of the things we see and also that there are real differences between what we see as essential and right and what others do (an obvious example being that there are not a lot of Chinese people I ever met or have ever heard of who would be sympathetic in the least with the Tibetan cause). And I’m not saying you shouldn’t protest or continue to disagree, just that I think it’s important to not assume that we all rank our values the same way.

    I respect your attitude towards the forced abortions and really wouldn’t argue with that.

    I agree with you whole-heartedly about the pollution issue, though (although I’m not sure SUV-loving Americans can criticize the driving habits of others) and I think it’s essential to ask why Beijing was given the Games *NOW* when their environmental conditions are still so appalling. It was clearly a decision that placed politics above concern for actual athletic competition as I believe many athletes are going to attest to.

    Most troubling for the Chinese is that the central government does not appear in control of the pollution situation or the polluters and I don’t think they understand how negative the response is going to be to the conditions. It’s bad for them to have it now and it’s bad for the athletes. But actual concern for the athletes is something beyond politics and is actually about the sport (Gosh!), something that seems to have been a secondary thought at best in this whole fiasco.

  6. Luke on May 2nd at 6:59 am


    This is indeed an insightful piece; I’m concerned, however, that it is just too balanced. Your distinction between the Chinese government and the Chinese people is very useful, especially since the Chinese government–unlike the American–is not explicitly ‘by the people, for the people’. This implies (to me, at least) that the Chinese people bear significantly less blame for the sins of their government than do, say, Americans, at least in theory. As such, a boycott of the Olympics would, as you point out, punish a billion people (to many of whom the Olympics are an extremely big deal) for the sins of a very few.

    More to the point, however, when you consider America’s moral standing these days, you really have to admire the chutzpah of leaders like Nancy Pelosi who have considered a boycott. The Chinese government is arresting people without due process? Get out of town. Even if we found that the highest levels of the Chinese government had approved torture of the Tibetan protesters, and that those torture practices had in several cases lead to deaths, it should be hard for us Americans to summon much dudgeon. Maybe if China had started two offensive wars in the last seven years, basing one on totally mistaken intelligence, in the process killing tens of thousands of innocent people and displacing hundreds of thousands–certainly then our government would be right to boycott.

    America’s boycotting on account of China’s environmental issues would be equally rich, considering that this country has been the single greatest enemy of sound environmental policy throughout the world for at least the last 20 years.

    You are right that we cannot stop individuals from protesting, though I think Americans who want to protest should first concern themselves with getting their ducks in a row at home (I won’t speak about Europeans, though for the most part they too have problems they could worry about at home–except the Northern Europeans, who, it seems to me, have the right to protest whomever they want). What really gets me about these protesters is the lack of perspective they have on the progress China has demonstrated over the last 30 years. As you point out, over that period, the Chinese government has improved dramatically on literally every measure that should be important to us. Certainly the country still has major problems, but these problems are vastly complex. One simply cannot be indignant about China’s environmental policies and their ‘coercive’ one-child policy at once, for one of the greatest contributors to China’s massive environmental problems is of course their massive over-population problem. And right now, a large-scale political revolution that instituted a less ‘coercive’, more open, more Western democracy would be likely only to make these problems worse by decreasing the government’s ability to combat them. This is not to say that such a democracy cannot be a long-term goal, but rather that we have to look at China’s situation right now in the light of its history.

    Finally, while we must acknowledge that Tibetans who are angry about the state of their homeland have every right to be so, I think we Americans are getting a very skewed picture of the oppressiveness of China’s reaction. What do you think the American government would do if crowds of Native Americans got together to riot, burn shops, and kill white people in, say, Santa Fe? But wait, you say–that couldn’t happen. Of course not; but only because America’s ‘cultural genocide’ against the Native Americans has been much more thorough than anything the Chinese have attempted in Tibet.

    Finally, no amount of protesting or boycotting is likely to significantly change China’s policy in Tibet. Westerners would do well to recognize that protests abroad, violent or non-violent, work as political tools only when the country against which they are directed has a free press, which of course China doesn’t. When the press is controlled by the people you are protesting against, your protesting can only frustrate your goals. Protestors in America and abroad–be they private individuals or public figures–need to stop behaving like they’ll get a cookie every time they throw a temper tantrum. If we really want China to improve on these issues, and aren’t merely concerned with inflating our own opinions of ourselves, there are responsible avenues by which we can exert pressure. Attempts to embarass the Chinese people are not among them. Just imagine, for instance, how America would react to China’s banning it from the Olympics on the basis of our record in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.