Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Free Tibet, Don't Boycott the Olympics

Written by johnleemk on 11:56:55 am Apr 15, 2008.

Tibet and China have captivated the world's attention at a most pressing time for the Chinese nation. At what might have been the worst time imaginable, the Tibetans chose to protest Chinese rule — and the subsequent Chinese clampdown has triggered strong protests from people around the world. China has never had a stellar human rights record, and this, added to some of its shadier activities at home and abroad, have led many to call for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics this summer. As laudable as these causes may be, I am skeptical that a boycott is the right course of action.

From the Free Tibet point of view, things are pretty simple. Tibet was free; China came in and conquered it. Ever since, China has sought to subjugate the Tibetan people and make them subsidiary to a Han Chinese identity. Policies encouraging Han Chinese immigration to Tibet and other ethnic minority regions have only given us more reason to worry. Chinese violence against the people of Tibet earlier this year was basically the last straw. We ought to boycott the Olympics to send China a strong signal that this is not right.

The Free Tibet campaign may be the most vocal, but it is just one of many human rights movements condemning China. Amnesty International has always been up in arms about China's heavyhanded policies, especially towards its own people. Political repression, wanton capital punishment, forced abortions — the list can go on and on.

For China's behaviour abroad, Darfur has perhaps been the signature issue. China's support for the Sudanese government here is not exactly very popular, nor is Chinese involvement with other authoritarian and corrupt African regimes. Again, the clarion call has been for China to divest its investments in these countries, and to stop supporting genocide in Darfur. All these lead many to call for an Olympics boycott, just to teach China a lesson.

Then there is the Chinese side of the argument. China sees Tibet as a historical part of itself; it feels it has a strong claim to the Tibetan region. To many Chinese, giving up Tibet is akin to the United States giving up the South. Other countries have not been above this sort of issue; the United Kingdom struggled for years with the idea of giving Ireland independence. Till today, it's still something of a hot-button issue. Many countries just view a particular region as historically part of themselves, and react strongly to the suggestion that they give it up. Many Chinese are indignant that the West has not been so keen to support other separatist movements as it has been when it comes to Tibet.

Chinese also believe that their domestic issues are their business, not the world's. They will resolve these issues on their own terms; they would rather have a totalitarian Chinese government than a global consensus dictating terms to them. Democracy is not a big deal for most Chinese, as far as we can ascertain.

The same attitude dominates Chinese perception of foreign policy. It is their right to pursue their own investment policies; who are activists to dictate to a sovereign nation where it should put its capital? China is rather sensitive to the notion that it does not have the same right to throw around its power in the same way many Western countries do; it views itself as a world power, and wants to be recognised as such. When people suggest that it not invest in certain countries, that it not exercise its soft power, China gets upset.

So, those are the facts of the case as I see them. Why do I think an Olympics boycott is a bad idea? Because it sends the wrong message. It is not enough to have a message we want to communicate; we have to know that the message will get through. From my reading of the Chinese nation's psyche, I doubt they will respond to the message in the way we think they will.

As one of my friends has observed, the Chinese people are upset with their own government, because they don't think it's heavyhanded enough. There have been many vocal calls for the government to repress the Tibetans even more. It is not just the Chinese government which thinks Tibet belongs to China; the Chinese people think Tibet belong to China. It is not enough to sway the Chinese government; you have to sway the Chinese people. This is an issue they feel strongly about, apparently even more so than the issues human rights activists typically press in China.

Likewise, the Chinese people have this sense that they now are a world power by right. They want to bathe in this feeling; they want to be accorded what they believe to be rightfully theirs. Since the 19th century, they have been trampled upon by foreign powers, and only now are they regaining the status that they deserve. You may quarrel with this interpretation of history, but that is how the Chinese people see it.

A most unfortunate fact is that although the world perceives various people — those of Darfur, those of Tibet, etc. — as victims of Chinese hegemony, the Chinese people perceive themselves as victims of Western hegemony. They react very negatively to any instance where they see the West trying to force its own values and ideas on them. Even though this victim mentality is somewhat at variance with the reality of the situation, it is a potent driving factor in what the Chinese people think, and hence what the Chinese government will do.

One of the worst things the world could do, then, would be to humiliate the Chinese people at the Olympics. Chinese arguments against politicising the situation are not particularly good; that much is clear. It is really hypocritical to say you can't bring Darfur or Tibet into the picture when China itself protested the inclusion of Taiwan in the Olympics on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, realpolitik dictates that we find other ways to change the approach of the Chinese government.

If we boycott the Olympics, we believe we send the message that we want China to help end the genocide in Darfur, and free Tibet. China instead gets the message that we will not respect it as a world power or a sovereign nation, and it will push back strongly. It cannot tolerate being the victim of "the West". Embarrassing China accomplishes nothing more than making China "lose face", and to what end? I cannot see anything productive resulting.

I believe China should work towards a better human rights record. I do not think, though, that the best way to encourage them here is to shame China and the Chinese people. Rather, world leaders should look for ways to engage Chinese leaders behind the scenes, and to gently push them towards reexamining their policies.

If we make China lose face, all we do is hand the hardliners political ammunition. They will be even less likely to engage with the West, and even less likely to consider positive ideas that are associated with "the West". We certainly ought to pressure China to change, but we cannot make China lose face; we cannot ruin their "coming out party".

For China, the Beijing Olympics will mark a glorious return to the world stage, after exclusion from geopolitical power for over a century. Like it or not, whether this party is a success is immaterial; China does wield significant power now. That is why we're so upset with them in the first place — they are not wielding it as constructively as they should be. But we have to engage with China; we cannot treat it as a pariah of sorts, even if they deserve this treatment, any more than we can treat the US or the UK or Germany or Japan as geopolitical outcasts. We really have no choice but to work with China to resolve this issue. Boycotting the Olympics may make us feel good about ourselves. Ultimately, though, it will only give credence to those who warn that the West and other world powers cannot be trusted; it will only strengthen the very forces that we want to weaken.

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