09 April 2008

Looking Toward China

Back in February, I wrote the following (which I did not put on the blog):

Over the weekend [of 10 February], the Daily Mail reported that athletes from the UK will be required to sign an agreement that they will not badmouth Chinese human rights violations and other political issues during the upcoming Olympics. New Zealand and Belgium have done the same. Other countries “including the United States, Canada, Finland, and Australia” will not require the agreements; athletes from these countries can presumably say anything they choose.

This brings up issues of free speech and the proper place for political speech. It seems to me that, if an athlete were so inclined as to speak out against human rights violations in China, that athlete would be wise to use the Olympics as a sort of fact-finding trip. No doubt that Beijing will have its best face on, but there are crack in any fa├žade. Find the cracks, snap a photo (since just about every electronic gadget has a camera now), snap a ton. Surely Chinese handlers won’t be able to stop every gaze on the not-so-pretty in their country. Then the athlete can come back home and analyze what was discovered. Then make a statement, with evidence found during the trip. All the while, the politically active athlete can still enjoy his or her “right to compete at the Olympics regardless of (insert non-relevant prejudice here)”.

This seems sensible to me. Why the Olympics, or any other sporting venue, is a place for individual political statement is really strange to me. At some point, I thought that political statements, in a vocal sense, would begin and end with chants of “U-S-A…U-S-A!” or singing a national song. Political statements of a more personal nature can be made on private time in a country that really does support freedom of speech responsibly.


After writing that, I got a particularly insightful response, which said in part that,
[t]here will be no visible human rights violations anywhere near Olympic sites…There are civil disturbances out in the sticks, by the tens of thousands a year. But people are not being whipped in the streets in Beijing. And how do you take a picture of the fact that no gatherings not controlled by the government are allowed?

Good points, indeed. Which is why, at the time, I didn’t put the post out.

Since then, the Chinese have done quite a job on Tibet. There are some calling for boycotts of at least the opening ceremonies. President Bush has said rather flatly that he can go to China and talk about human rights violations, specifically the lack of religious freedom. He says he’ll do that “prior to the Olympics, during the Olympics and after the Olympics”.

What the Tibet situation does is it highlights for all those who care to give interest that the Chinese are not interested in bending to international opinion. They will do it – whatever it is – their way. What’s more, most nations will not give a whit what China really does. Sure, protest. Sure, cause an uproar. The noise will die down and bumper sticker will fade.

In the end, China will probably best be moved by tying human rights considerations to economic and trade considerations. Tying Chinese interest in money to greater openness is worth a shot, though it will take many years to do much of anything. But then again, most things that are difficult take time.

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