Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Should the Olympics be boycotted?

Both the libertarian blog Pacific Empire and semi-libertarian blog Mulholland Drive are endorsing a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. Blair Mulholland explains why:
.
  • Free speech and freedom of the press is severely restricted and censored;
  • Religion must be sanctioned by the state or adherents are persecuted; and
  • Huge numbers of political and religious dissidents languish in Chinese prisons
He calls for China to simply release all prisoners of conscience and to guarantee freedom of speech and freedom of the press. All perfectly reasonable. The boycott he calls for is for athletes to choose themselves, not for government to impose it.
.
So should they? It has been a while since an Olympic Games has suffered from widespread boycotts. Athens, Sydney, Atlanta and Barcelona were all games held in free liberal democracies with all such rights, as will London.
.
The Seoul Olympics in 1988 were the last games during the Cold War, but partly catalysed the democratisation of South Korea. When South Korea won the right to the games in 1981, it was under a military dictatorship, but in 1987 it had its first fully democratic presidential elections and despite North Korea demanding a boycott, only Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua joined the boycott. Since the Seoul Olympics, freedom of the press and vigorous democratic elections have been the hallmark of South Korea. However, China is not on the cusp of becoming free, it is not South Korea 20 years ago.
.
The LA Olympics in 1984 were boycotted by the Warsaw Pact, but the 1980 Moscow Olympics were meant to be a propaganda triumph. This failed miserably not least because of the almost universal Western boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
.
Now in 2008, the Olympic torch ceremony has been a focus for protests in London and Paris. Disturbingly though, the coverage has talked about "anti-China" and "pro-Tibet" protests - I doubt they are either.
.
Who is anti-China? Well besides many in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and others from neighbouring states who harbour the fear and the latent racism that is widespread outside Western civilisation, few indeed. I am not. I am pleased China is growing, pleased that freedoms in China have grown with it and would like nothing less than for the people of China to simply have some fundamental freedoms.
.
Simply being able to criticise the government, have a free and open press, and a state that is accountable, rather than being an extension of the Communist Party. I care less about China being a liberal democracy than I care about the right to free speech, for political prisoners to be freed, and for those who govern China being accountable before the law. It is about China growing up.
.
However, those who govern China are fomenting nationalist hatred that is seen on the China Daily forums that what the protests are about are about criticising and humiliating China. They are not - they are about rejecting the bloodshed, the repression and the unwillingness of China's one party state to be accountable or even honest about what it does. To me China is not what the Communist Party, which in its darkest period was responsible for tens of millions of Chinese starving and being slaughtered, says it is - it is about a people who are resourceful, hard working and creative.
.
Tibet is almost a sideshow, but represents what is wrong with the Chinese regime - it tolerates no dissent, it doesn't allow free and frank debate about government in Tibet, or criticism of what it does. Sadly this means that when Tibetans riot, and attack innocent local Chinese, it becomes a "them and us" story - some choose to unquestionably support the Tibetan protestors, others the Chinese - the truth is that neither are angels, but it is encumbent upon the Chinese Communist Party led regime to not suppress information and not suppress free speech there. i see no reason to be "pro-Tibet" anymore than being "anti-China", and don't believe that a Tibetan Buddhist theocracy is where it should be heading.
.
China has a better model. It's called Hong Kong.
.
You'd be hard pressed to find anywhere in the world with more individual freedom than Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, there is a lively free press, with private property rights, independent judiciary and freedom to do business. Art and culture thrive in diversity, and this is all in spite of over ten years of oversight from Beijing. Hong Kong doesn't have liberal democracy, but it is a free society, has low levels of corruption and reasonably high accountability for politicians and bureaucracy. Most importantly, Beijing has left it pretty much well alone. The truth is that in the last ten years Mainland China has been slowly moving towards the freedoms of Hong Kong, not Hong Kong moving backwards - albeit that China has a long long way to go.
.
The key questions are this - is it positive for freedom and individual rights in China for the Olympics to be hosted there and a spotlight to be turned on China? and are the Olympics a celebration of China's economic and technological modernisation or a celebration of its one party authoritarian state?
.
The answer to the first question is yes. It is yes because the Chinese regime can't turn the screws too much while the world watches, for fear that it encourages more protests, more scrutiny and more attention about what it doesn't do well. It is already hurting and straining relations. If it were not for the Olympics then Chinese human rights abuses would be ignored, as they largely have been since Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately the day after the Olympics is likely to be painful for those who dare to express dissent in China in the run up to it. However in the lead up, and at the time Chinese officials will be confronted with questions.
.
The second question is more delicate, as the truth is it will be both. China has much to celebrate in its modernisation, the long journey from the murderous Maoist state which starved and shouted at its people, to the market based authoritarian state where, by and large, people can get on with their lives as long as they don't challenge the state, or get in the way of the groaning leviathan. Standards of living have soared enormously, all because of free market capitalism - although China's legal and banking systems are at best shaky and antiquated.
.
Meanwhile, political power continues to come from a barrel of a gun. The Communist Party's sphere of influence has steadily eroded. China is not the starving Police State of North Korea, but is no bastion of open debate. Political dissension in China is expressed behind closed doors within the Communist Party, and to a limited extent at the local level where some criticism is allowed. Meanwhile some within the Party use its siamese twin like linkage with the state to enrich themselves - with little accountability, except from enemies who dob them in for whatever reason. Let's face it, the Chinese state is authoritarian, corrupt and brutal.
.
The Chinese regime would use the Olympics to showcase China, and undoubtedly many Chinese in China would be proud to be in the Olympic host country. One argument is that this would solidify support for Communist party rule, but what if there was a boycott, would this weaken such rule?
.
A state boycott would not - the Chinese regime would turn in on itself, would make racist claims that countries boycotting are "anti-Chinese". If China does not engage in a brutal suppression of dissent in the run up to the games (and the situation in Tibet is not of the scale of Tiananmen Square), then states should not now announce a boycott. A boycott should have been clear when China won the rights to host the games. To posture now in the final year, in the absence of any major change in circumstances is simply to posture.
.
Yes I know some think Tibet represents that - but it doesn't. None of the countries posturing about Tibet recognise it has any right to independence. Tibet has been subject to far more repression in the past, yet the world was largely silent. China is under pressure to be restrained in Tibet, but how it acts there is little different to how it acts elsewhere - it's just that the Dalai Lama exists for Tibet, no similar spokesperson exists for people oppressed in other provinces.
.
However, none of this should hinder the absolute right of individual athletes and politicians to boycott the games to express opposition to China's lack of individual freedom. My own view is that athletes that value such freedoms should not go (with the added benefit that they avoid breathing the toxic swill of Beijing smog), and neither should politicians. Those politicians who do go should take the chance to express concern about China's lack of political freedom.
.
In that sense if the Olympics is held, has some politicians boycotting loudly, some attending and expressing support for individual rights and many athletes boycotting, then two things will have happened. China will be in the spotlight - much of what is good will be seen, and some of what is wrong will be seen too - and those in charge know this. So for that I support those who individually choose to boycott the games purely to support the rights to free speech and political dissent, and for freedom for those arrested and imprisoned for such offences. I don't support those who simply call for "Free Tibet", as all of China should be free.
.
In fact a better campaign would be to extend the freedoms of Hong Kong to all of China - but since there isn't liberal democracy in Hong Kong, many of those protesting wont see the value in that. However, the longer Hong Kong succeeds and is seen to succeed, the more the rest of China can appreciate that it is the way to go - because the most important thing isn't elections, it is freedom.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

There will be plenty of people going to the Olympics. Nobody is forcing you to go. By the way, can I have your ticket if you are not going? You do not know what you are going to miss. This will be one of the greatest Olympics ever! You pity little head loser!

libertyscott said...

I wasn't planning on going since I believe given Sydney was on my doorstep and represented a far friendlier atmosphere.

Awfully nice to have the Olympics somewhere where my views would send me to prison.

Andrew said...

Scott,

If you had worked your entire life for an event, would you really give it up?

China needs to be changed by changing the culture, that is by changing the ideas of individuals. They'll learn to appreciate Western freedoms through their interactions with us which is why the 'FTA' is a good thing (limited as it is).

The Olympics won't expose Chinese to Western ideas and freedoms quite so much but still it would be better to go, win your even and hold up a sign on the dais saying, "People of China, throw off your government's chains and demand your liberty" or something to that effect. There'd be cacophonous international outrage if the PRC tried to detain you.

Andrew said...

PS Anonymous wrote: "You pity little head loser!"

Love the way the Chinese pay or indoctrinate people to propandise on the dictatorship's behalf.

Andrew said...

Scott,

Whereabouts in London are you? I am nearby Angel (just East of there). Look me up on facebook (I am third in the London network) or reply to one of my recent libertyloop posts.

We should catch up for a beer some time soon.

Batesy.

Blair said...

You bloody objectivists need to realise you don't own the term "libertarian". I'm not "semi" anything mate.