Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Embarrass Beijing, don´t boycott
Corriere della Sera - August 21st 2007

The one-year countdown has begun in Tiananmen Square, for the Olympic Games that will open in Beijing at 8.08pm on the 8th day of the 8th month of 2008. That perfect series of eights offers a small clue to how spectacular a show the Chinese government wants to put on, in order to show that China is now a great modern country. Some people would like to spoil that show by boycotting the Olympics in protest at China’s abuse of human rights and its support for other governments that do the same, such as Sudan. The latest is Maxine Waters, a Democrat member of Congress from California, who put a motion before the House of Representatives last week calling on George Bush to lead a boycott.

            There is absolutely no chance that this motion will succeed. But it raises a good question: if you disapprove of the way the Chinese Communist Party and its government behaves, what is the best way to show your disapproval? Many critics compare the 2008 Olympics in China to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when Adolf Hitler was able to boost German pride shortly before invading Czechoslovakia and Poland.

            It is quite right to want to put pressure on China to improve its treatment of human rights, both for its own citizens and for people elsewhere. Yet a boycott would not be a very effective way to do that. The Games would still go on, records would be broken and medals would be won,  the show would still be spectacular, and once the show was over human rights would not improve. In fact, the Chinese government might be so annoyed by the boycott that it would be even more unco-operative in places like Sudan.

            A much better strategy would be to try to spoil the Olympic show itself. In other words, to go to Beijing and find ways to draw the world’s attention to China’s many abuses, including the occupation of Tibet, its suppression of religious groups, and the large number of political prisoners it holds captive.

To secure the Games, China had to promise to permit free access to the world’s media, a promise it is already finding it hard to keep. But the media will be there, and although most will have their cameras aimed at the sport there will also be plenty of attention available for demonstrations and other forms of protest. Some could be by the athletes themselves. If the Chinese authorities attempt to stop such protests, then that too will be reported and will spoil China’s image.

It is too late to try to stop the Games by boycotting them. The better tactic is to exploit the fact that the Games are going to take place and the fact that they will focus the world’s eyes on China and its government, even if just for a few weeks. China has already suffered criticism about air pollution in its capital city, with a warning that some endurance events such as long-distance cycling might have to be postponed if the smog is as bad next August as it was this year. More attention will now be given to China’s environmental problems and to the probably drastic methods the government will use to try to make things better next year, such as banning cars and closing factories.

That attention will be embarrassing. The more embarrassment, the better. In fact, rather than boycotting the Beijing Olympics, here is a much better idea for opponents of the Games such as Rep. Waters or Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher: why don’t they draw up a scheme to award gold, silver and bronze medals to the bravest and most imaginative protestors during the event next year? Everyone loves a good competition, after all.


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