Johann Hari: Boycotting the Beijing Olympics won't work, but here's a proposal that just might
Independent, UK - Monday, 7 April 2008
On the streets of London, the Chinese dictatorship has just learned with a painful jab that their Olympic Slogan – "One World, One Dream" – is true. In every city the Olympic torch sashays through on its world tour, its greeting is the same. Tibetans wave their banned flag and grieve for their freshly-slaughtered countrymen. Falun Gong refugees hold aloft pictures of their co-believers who have vanished into China's vast "re-education camps". Darfuris cry for an end to the massacres against them backed from Beijing. And ordinary people line the streets to support them. Yes, they all have One Dream: an end to human rights abuses.
But aren't the Olympics meant to be apolitical, one of the few places where we can gather and leave our ideologies at the door? Yes. But it is not the protesters who politicised the Olympics; it is the Chinese Communist dictatorship. As the leading Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng – who taught himself law in a shack in Shaanxi Province – explained last year: "The Chinese Communist regime sees the hosting of the Olympics as political. They are using it to prove to the Chinese people that the world is still acknowledging the party as a legal government, despite all the suppressive and bloody tyranny, and all the horrible crimes against humanity the Party has committed."
(Shortly after he issued this warning, Gao "disappeared", as so many Chinese human rights activists do. With this move, the Chinese government proved his point.)
The protesters are simply trying to stop the Chinese dictatorship from continuing to wave the Olympics as a bogus global seal of approval for their cruel rule. Now they are asking: how do we keep disrupting the 100-metres propaganda sprint that takes us up to August? Should there be a boycott of Beijing?
So far, the discussion has focused on one very narrow sliver of the Games: whether our political leaders should attend the opening ceremony. But this is looking in the wrong direction. Our politicians are not the people to take a moral stand on our behalf. Not only are many soaked in the blood of innocents themselves; worse, last year, they actually used their power to lobby hard against a major extension of human rights in China.
Here's how it happened. The Chinese government was being battered by industrial unrest, across the country's factories and mines. There were more than 300,000 industrial protests in 2006, because ordinary Chinese people were sick of being paid artificially low wages and seeing their colleagues lose limbs in shrieking machinery just to provide us with ultra-cheap goods. So the Chinese dictatorship decided – through gritted teeth – to allow ordinary Chinese citizens to form trade unions. It was an extraordinary gasp of freedom, allowing political organisations to be formed across the country.
Our governments panicked. The mighty business lobbies told them – in more polite language – that if Chinese workers are not lashed into submission, they will start demanding more wages, and to make their workplaces safe. That means lower profits for "our" businesses and higher prices at our tills. So the US and European governments lobbied the Communist Party hard against upholding this basic right. Our leaders stood up for unfreedom, and won. The law was ditched. We still get to shop until Chinese workers drop. How can those same leaders pop up a year later and posture about greater rights in China?
But one of the great things about the Olympics is that we aren't represented by our politicians. We are represented by ordinary citizens, who happen to be extraordinarily brilliant athletes. They are untainted by the fetid calculations of geopolitics and corporate corruption. They can speak for basic human values – if they choose to.
So far, the discussion of a sporting boycott has also stalled, because people assume there are only two options. Either we go along passively and smile into the Communist propaganda-camera, or we stay away until the distant day when China is a multiparty democracy with a First Amendment protecting free speech.
There is another way. Our athletes can offer the Chinese government a deal. We will happily take part – provided you meet three simple, practical conditions. Follow this checklist, and your international coming-out party will go swimmingly.
First: release China's 10 greatest human rights activists. Top of the list is the Chinese hero Hu Jia. He is a 34-year-old father rotting in jail because he campaigned for the rights of Aids victims, and against the environmental destruction spreading across the country. We're going to need Chinese allies like him in the years to come, as the Great Leap Backwards of global warming intensifies.
Second: invite the Dalai Lama to Beijing, and talk to him. Just talk. When I met the Dalai Lama a few years ago, he said he would do it. This is in China's interests too: the younger generation of Tibetans coming up behind him are less prepared to offer up the other cheek for a kicking. Israel has learned the hard way that if you react to largely peaceful protests against occupation – like the first Intifada of the 1980s – with beatings and bullets, you face rockets and suicide-bombers further down the line. China still has a chance to stop that shift – just.
Third: allow a real UN peacekeeping force into Darfur. Since 2003, the Chinese government has been covering at the UN for the genocidal Sudanese government, in return for full access to the country's oil. They will only vote for a peacekeeping force if the Sudanese government – the murderers – retains the right to veto the arrival of any troops. As the limping, bloodied people of Darfur told me last summer as they filed across the border, this Chinese clause makes peace impossible.
And finally, allow us to set up a website that breaks through the Great Firewall of China, explaining why we have laid down these conditions.
If the athletes of the free(ish) world unite behind these demands, there is a significant chance the Chinese government will meet them. The embarrassment of their multi-billion-dollar phallus flopping before the world may well trump the embarrassment of conceding on these three issues.
If we are going to ask the Olympics athletes to risk something they have worked their whole lives for, we have to offer them something hefty. A noble but ineffective moral gesture won't do it. But with this proposal, we can say – imagine: you could play a part in getting the Dalai Lama to Beijing, a proper peace-force into Darfur, and 10 heroic men and women into freedom, or go down trying. We have four months to persuade them this is worth making a stand for.
Before being sent to his dungeon, Ha Jin wrote, "When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing, you will see skyscrapers, modern stadiums and enthusiastic people. You may not know that the flowers, smiles and prosperity are built on a base of tears, imprisonment, torture and blood." Ha was prepared to risk his life to tourniquet this flow of his countrymen's blood. Are we really not even prepared to take a calculated, calibrated risk with the Olympics?