Commentary

China expert: Only effective protest is Olympic boycott

Originally Published: April 9, 2008
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

As the only North American stop for the Beijing 2008 Olympic flame, San Francisco is attracting protestors from all over the country who are criticizing China's human rights record with Tibet as well as its policies toward the Darfur region of Sudan.

San Francisco police orchestrated three layers of protection -- cops on foot, bicycle and motorcycle -- to protect torchbearers Wednesday in hopes of avoiding a scenario such as the one that plagued the relay in Paris last week. There, the Olympic torch had to be extinguished and whisked away to safety.

Why is this happening? ESPN.com spoke to Richard Baum, a UCLA political science professor and Chinese political expert, to find out. Baum, who taught at the University of Beijing, is the author of numerous articles on Chinese politics and eight books, including "China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom," which will be published early next year.

ESPN.com: Why are these protests taking place?

Richard Baum: The human rights community has been upset with China because of its human rights issues with Darfur and its treatment of Tibetans. Until now, they haven't had a large forum to take their argument to the public. But the Olympic spotlight gives them quite the stage and a lot of China's long-standing social problems are coming out from under the woodwork. The more problems that are exposed, the more emotions become engaged.

ESPN.com: What specifically happened in Tibet and Darfur? Why the outrage?

[+] Enlargepro-Tibet supporters
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty ImagesAs the protests mount, the confrontations heat up, as this one did in San Francisco on Wednesday between pro-Tibet supporters and pro-China supporters.
RB: Tibet is a long string of events, starting with the military conquest in 1950 and more recently the brutal suppression of an uprising in 1959. There were demonstrations last month, on the 49th anniversary of that uprising, when the Tibetans demonstrated for three or four days without issue until things turned violent. When that happened, the Chinese government cracked down with violence of its own.

With Darfur, the Chinese for several years have been bottom-fishing, making energy alliances with countries that have human rights problems. Darfur is one of them. They get a lot of oil from Darfur and make no demands in return in terms of improving their human rights. We won't deal with them. China will. To much criticism, they suspend humanitarian judgment. They also supplied a lot of weapons to the Sudan government that have been used to suppress any uprisings.

ESPN.com: We have known for several years that Beijing was going to host the '08 Games. Why protest now?

RB: It's actually been slowly building for a while now. The first true protest started last August, one year out before the games. That's when the first true protestors started calling for a boycott. Then Mia Farrow and some others then started calling it "The Genocide Olympics." But it really wasn't until the final run-up to the Games began and the torch started to become an issue that all the floodlights were turned on full. The precipitous decision that really kick-started this was the decision of Steven Spielberg to renege on his commitment to be an artistic advisor for the Games. That very public display created an opening for a lot of people to jump on the bandwagon.

ESPN.com: If so many are so strongly opposed to China's political practices, why did they get the Games in the first place?

RB: Well, I think the International Olympic Committee had one eye on Seoul in 1988. Remember, it was the awarding of the Seoul Olympics that pushed South Korea to open up and democratize. I think there was some hope it would happen in China as well. And of course, China took advantage of these hopes and pledged that the Olympics would help them develop their democracy. They helped raise expectations themselves.

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•  The Olympic Flame's journey to Beijing has sparked controversy for political reasons and stirred the human spirit. Follow it with us. Gallery.

•  The Olympic torch route.

ESPN.com: What was China's goal in getting these Games?

RB: It was to be a coming-out party, a debutante ball. For 150 years, China has been the sick man of Asia. The last 25 years, their dynamic growth has made them a power, and this is their party to show that to the world. They want the power; they want the attention. But with that comes the spotlight, and that's when stuff like this gets illuminated. It caught them completely off guard.

ESPN.com: So what effect, if any, will these protests have on the Games or the Chinese government?

RB: A lot depends on whether governments as opposed to individuals or human rights groups begin to express support for a boycott. To date, no single government or national team has declared a boycott or supported one. At most, people like Prince Charles have said they might not attend the opening ceremonies. But that's a low-level thing. If they use the "B" word, "boycott," that's when this will heat up. If President Bush said he was going to protest China's human rights record with a boycott … that would create a political firestorm that would burn for a long time to come. But I think most governments are going to keep a fire wall between these protests and any official government action, because if they don't and this entire event becomes politicized, it will probably spell the end of the Olympics.

ESPN.com: The end of the Olympics? Why?

RB: First of all, you have the precedent that we boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games and the Soviet Union turned around in 1984 and boycotted our Games. How would we feel if our hosting the Games was blocked by people who said, "Guantanamo Bay? No way -- we're not going to participate in the U.S. Games." Look, every country has embarrassing political skeletons in their closet. Are you really going to hold everyone hostage at a sporting event that's supposed to support goodwill? Either you honor the Olympic ideal or you forget the thing altogether.

Look, there are a lot of problems in China. I'm not making light of their abuse. I can understand why human rights groups want to use the occasion to highlight their points. But there are other agendas too. And everyone is competing for the moral high ground. I happen to think that shaming China and sticking our fingers in its eye is a bad idea. The more you humiliate them, the angrier they are going to get. They're not going to treat Tibetans any better through protests. The way to do that is through quiet pressure, not public humiliation.

ESPN.com: How have the Chinese people reacted to the protests?

RB: The Chinese are quietly aware that the international anger is quite strong. They know that if they want to be seen as a normal country, they have to behave normally. But the truth is the vast majority of Chinese people support their government. The people I talk to and the message boards and chat rooms I monitor are overloaded with patriotic support of their country. All of the Chinese have experienced humiliation in the last century and a half. But on this occasion, they identify with being Chinese. They have an incredible patriotic attachment to the symbols of the Olympics, and it is truly a small minority of political dissidents in China who are up in arms about this.

ESPN.com: So what next?

RB: I think it will get worse before it gets better. I think the human rights people will keep voicing their protests. I wouldn't be surprised if there are demonstrations in China during the Games that are being cooked up as we speak. But after the Games, I assume things will die down.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.