Friday, March 14, 2008

The Olympic Shames

With smoke rising over the Tibetan capital Lhasa today ( ), there seems no better example of the the so-called "world community's" hypocrisy in its approach to China.

While there is still a need to "get real", as Hillary Clinton would say, about how to handle an emerging superpower this should not include the need to give up all principles.

While trade may be one thing, particularly at a time of hovering recession, to go along with the Olympics in Beijing regardless of what China does to its own citizens seems quite another.
For those with historical awareness, you will already know that the PRC (People's Republic of China) has already won the gold medal in one area- genocide. While the horrors of Nazi Germany probably amount to a numerical bronze in the killing totals, and Stalin's USSR can claim a bloody silver, the PRC with a claim to have killed 70 million of its people undoubtedly deserves a genocide gold.

This may be a rather unpleasant way of putting it but the facts themselves are far more unpleasant.Nowhere else in the world the Olympics be held or at least get such enthusiastic participation in the face of so many known abuses. If the UK invaded Ireland and was suppressing monks in Dublin it is difficult to imagine any countries coming to an Olympics in London. Equally if the US decided to annex a part of Canada and suppressed the people there with force, it is unlikely anyone would show up for an Olympics in New York. It is certain, to use a real example, that regardless of all the various claims and rights and wrongs that an Olympics would not get held anywhere in the middle east right now.

Yet because China is China and a superpower the whole world wants to go to a glorious celebration of modern China this August. India, to its shame, even suppresses peaceful demonstrations on its own territory to avoid "embarrassing the Chinese". Even Greece, the home of the Olympics sought to shoo away Tibetan protestors near Mount Olympia as if they were a simple nuisance.

I am not supporting a complete embargo on China. Not least, because for all its faults, China is making progress. I have visited the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau and met a friendly and welcoming people. Although the past is grisly there is some hope for the future.

However the cultural commendation that seems to come with the Olympics still seems wrong for China especially when you think of its ongoing treatment of Tibet. I doubt teams will pull out of the Olympics in any numbers. The urge for nations to get medals and recognition by competing is too strong, the meaningless platitude of keeping politics out of sport will be spouted, the wilful and happy ignorance of the masses who watch the games from their sofas will not care about armed suppression in remote corners of the world. Perhaps most importantly of all those who will make much money from the Olympics whether in merchandising, broadcasting, travel or elsewhere will have loud voices ensuring that the show is kept on the road.This is all a shame because to me the Olympics is all rather meaningless when set against teargas and bullets. the bodies hurriedly zipped into body bags for a quiet cremation or the knock on the door in the middle of the night from the security forces.

In a sense if the Olympics go ahead unchallenged and the ignorant millions eat hot dogs while watching the games on TV it will prove the uncomfortable reality that in some respects terrorism works. In his book "Why Terrorism Works" Alan Dershowitz charts the obscure beginnings of the Arab-Israeli conflict that is centre stage today. The conclusion he reaches is that a conflict over such a small area of land only reached the international consciousness to such an extent due to the early terrorist actions. This gained news coverage and, no less importantly, a response that allowed the conflict to escalate.

Lesser examples of such tactics include Northern Ireland and Spain. Superficially no less significant disputes such as those who claim Welsh independence or the areas that France gained from Germany after WW II are hardly taken seriously as no one is prepared to commit (significant) violent acts in the cause of those disputes. The assumption is that a dispute is only significant or a wrong only grievous if those effected commit violence.

As Tibetans are Buddhist and under the Dalai Lama almost inherently non-violent, this dispute with China is largely over looked by the mass media in a way that would not happen if they blew up airliners or set off bombs at railway stations in international capitals.

China is clearly a complex entity and is now a very significant part of the world economy. To that end talk of sanctions, trade embargoes are just not realistic. They could also be counterproductive and end the reform that has brought China this far. Therefore some carrot is necessary. However the Olympics is too big a carrot and without any stick will they ever take seriously the abuses that have occurred in Tibet and other areas.

There is a lot of fantasy associated with the Olympics in that it in some way it represents a tradition from Ancient Greece. This may be so but overlooks a 1600 year gap until 1896. There is talk about "Olympic spirit" but this overlooks the realties of showcasing dictatorships (Berlin 1936), mass terrorism (Munich 1972) or ongoing drug abuse and big money making.In reality the Olympics is a complex international event with many agendas shrouded in a slightly sentimental blanket of "sport for everyone". While this can be harmless diversion for many, when it is exploited for all its PR opportunities by hosts who are reluctant to reform fully, surely there is little point in taking part ?

Not to have the Olympics this year may be a shame but the shame of endorsing a regime such as the PRC with its violent suppressions in Tibet is a shame far greater.

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