So far, world leaders have avoided calling for a full-scale boycott of this summer's Beijing Olympics. But as Beijing's brutal treatment of Tibetans becomes more overt, and as the regime's rhetoric becomes more shrill and paranoid, that may change.
China's violence against Tibetans has spread from Lhasa to neighbouring Chinese provinces with large Tibetan populations. Most cities are under martial law. Roadblocks prevent internal travel, and keep Western journalists from reporting the truth. Police and soldiers are going house-to-house searching for suspects. Over 100 already have died, and at least 700 have been arrested. This week, the Chinese government issued a 53-name "most-wanted" list containing the names of people it claims incited the deadly mid-March antigovernment protests. Included on the list were known dissidents whom Beijing has singled out because of their political views rather than any complicity in the Lhasa uprising.
In view of all this, Canada must find a meaningful way of communicating its disgust with Beijing's actions. At the very least, Stephen Harper's government should announce that Canada is boycotting the Games' Aug. 8 opening ceremonies (an idea that is also being explored by several European countries). We should also announce that no federal officials will attend the Games.
By boycotting the opening ceremony -- and urging other nations to do the same -- Canada would help diminish the value of the Olympics as a propaganda tool for the Chinese government. Beijing is anxious for the event to be seen as a sort of coming-of-age party -- de facto proof that China has been accepted into the community of civilized nations. By boycotting the opening ceremonies, the message would be very different: We are sending our athletes to the Olympics because Beijing, regrettably, is the location the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected -- but we are holding our nose while doing so.
We should be prepared to do more, too. If China's actions in Tibet (or anywhere else) becoming bloodier --if we begin to witness atrocities on the scale of the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings -- then Canada should boycott the Games outright.
Ottawa should now put the Chinese on notice that this is an option we are considering. We also should make plans for following through on the threat if the need arises. Specifically, Canada should attempt to form a coalition of democracies that would pressure the IOC to take the Summer Games away from China if events warrant. The Games wouldn't have to be canceled: Olympic sports could easily be divvied up among sites in other nations.
There are several stadiums -- including London's 90,000-seat New Wembley -- that could host track and field. Germany just hosted soccer's World Cup less than two years ago, and its pitches could accommodate the Olympic tournament. Basketball could be held at any one of 50 sites in the United States. Montreal recently hosted the world championships of diving, and could easily accommodate the aquatic events. And so on.
We have no illusions about the challenges that principled nations would face in implementing such a plan. Boycotts are often ineffectual. They seldom change the disputed policies of the host country. The 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics by Western athletes, for instance, neither convinced the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan nor brought about the immediate fall of communism.
"Alternative games" typically fare no better. Who remembers the Liberty Bell Classic organized in 1980 by the 29
countries that refused to send athletes to Moscow, or 1984's Friendship Games, held by the 50 countries that stayed away from that summer's Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation for the 1980 boycott? At both alternate competitions, several performances bested those of the gold medal winner at the official Olympics, but no one recalls who won at the second-best games.
The lesson: If a China boycott is to have real impact, the IOC must take away the official Olympics from China outright, and give the sports to other venues. The games that take place in alternate locations must be held under the banner of the "real" Olympics -- otherwise, they aren't worth staging.
Despite China's newfound wealth and growing international influence, the country's actions in Tibet show that its leaders are nothing more than old-style communists -- paranoid, nationalistic to the point of obsession and brutal to all those who challenge their policies. Yet so far, the IOC has been reluctant even to acknowledge China's sins -- despite the fact that China's actions contravene explicit promises Beijing made to IOC officials as a condition for being awarded the 2008 Games.
Even if China continues to commit atrocities against its own people, convincing IOC officials to move the Games will not be easy. That is why Ottawa must take a leadership role in building the groundwork-- starting now.