Thursday, April 10, 2008

International Affairs: Freedom Stir-Fries

When France raised strong objections against a possible invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Americans were outraged. This is from Wikipedia:

On March 11 United States House of Representatives Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and Walter B. Jones, Jr. (R-North Carolina) declared that all references to French fries (...) on the menus of the restaurants and snack bars run by the House of Representatives would be removed. House cafeterias were ordered to rename French fries "freedom fries".

Well, the invasion went on as planned and turned out to be, as we now know, a resounding success.

The "freedom fries" absurdity - perpetuated, I understand, to this day by some restaurants - is one of the silliest examples of boycotts I know. It wasn't even a real boycott, since absolutely no-one actually stopped eating French fries (which aren't even "French" at all).

Olympic boycotts, on the other hand, do tend to be real, even if their impact varies greatly depending on who's boycotting whom. It doesn't mean they can't be silly too, though.

The first Olympics to be boycotted were the Melbourne Games of 1956. A few European countries decided on a boycott as a reaction to the Soviet Union's quashing of the uprising in Hungary earlier that year; a few other countries boycotted due to the Suez Crisis. Both were obviously important and disconcerting (international) events, but neither boycott achieved anything. Looking back, it is, in fact, difficult to imagine how the boycotting countries could have imagined that their absence in a sporting event in Australia could ever have been seen as an significant reaction to Cold War politics in Europe or Africa.

The most famous boycott, no doubt, was that of the Moscow Games in 1980. The year before, the Soviet Union had effectively invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to save that country's communist government from defeat at the hands of the so-called Mujahideen, the "freedom fighters" portrayed so favourably in American media and in American films such as Rambo III.

The boycott, led by the US, was an actual succes in the sense that some 65 countries did not attend the games (although not all of them were absent due to the Afghan crisis), leaving only 81 countries to compete. It did not, however, have any effect on Soviet policy in Afghanistan. The Soviets didn't pull out of Afghanistan until 1989 (clearing the way for the Taliban to emerge out of the ranks of the Mujahideen and thereby setting the stage for a new invasion of the country in 2001, this time led by the US).

The Soviets reciprocated in 1984, boycotting that year's Olymics in Los Angeles. It was clear they didn't have any real reason to so except petty retaliation, and I don't recall anyone missing them (or their Eastern Block allies) very much at the time.

For some time after that, the Games were relatively boycott-free (although there were minor exceptions).

Now, however, things may change again. This time round, it's China's turn, and the reasons for a possible boycott are again tenuous.

The IOC awarded the 2008 Olympics to Beijing back in 2001. At the time, it was, perhaps, a surprising decision. Communist China's history when it comes to human rights has never been good, and it certainly wasn't any better in 2001 than it is now. If anything, the memories of what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were more vivid then than they are now; China's crack-down on the Falun Gong movement had already started in 1999.

It was, however, a decision that acknowledged the undeniable fact that China was emerging as a new superpower and that, like it or not, there really wasn't any way the (Western) world could afford to ignore that reality. And it was also a decision that seemed to express the hope that engagement - the essentialy non-divisive engagement of sports in particular - might bring its own dividends.

In short, the decision was both realistic and optimistic, and it was taken in the full knowledge of the Chinese government's shortcomings.

So what, one could ask, has changed since then to perhaps justify a boycott? The only possible answer to that is: nothing at all.

Yes, China supressed the recent unrest in Tibet, and it did so using some force. It wasn't, however, the first time: in 1959, there had been a larger but still presumably small-scale uprising in Tibet, which Mao swiftly crushed by considerably harsher means (and which led to the Dalai Lama's flight to India). There wasn't, in other words, much reason to be surprised or shocked by China's reaction to the March 2008 events.

Besides, do any of us know what the recent unrest amounted to, how it was started or to what degree the Chinese reaction was or was not justifiable? I rather suspect that many people in the West have an essentially romantic and fuzzy perception of Tibet and that a lot of us look at the country in rather the same way we looked at Afghanistan in the 1980's, with the ascetic and peace-loving Tibetans taking the place of the fierce and noble Mujahideen. We tend, therefore, to gloss over the fact that, insofar the recent unrest in Tibet was accompanied by violence, that violence was initiated by the Tibetans themselves. And whilst one might vehemently diagree with China's rule over Tibet in the first place, it is possible that China's response to that violence was, in effect, proportional and more or less reasonable.

Then there's the issue of China's involvement in the horrendous Darfur crisis, which is an even weaker reason to argue for a possible boycott by virtue of the simple fact that China's involvement actually amounts to a non-involvement. The argument here - as again evinced by mainly Western critics - is that China, given its links to the Sudanese government, is not doing enough to ameliorate the situation in Darfur. When Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic adviser for Beijing Games, he expressed this point of view as follows:

“Sudan’s Government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these ongoing crimes but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more to end the continuing human suffering there,” [Spielberg said]. “China’s economic, military and diplomatic ties to the Government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change."

China's policy in Africa, however, has been consistently non-intervenionist throughout. It is consistent, also, with China's own reaction to any outside interference in what it regards as its internal affairs, such as Tibet. China's inaction in Sudan can therefore hardly come as a surprise either. In addition to this, it's fair to say that the West's own policies with regard to Sudan (and Rwanda, and Congo, and Zimbabwe) have been remarkably passive as well. And to the extent that the West did attempt to pursue a positive and active role in Africa it has hardly been very successful. Had that been otherwise, all those African countries wouldn't have welcomed China with wide-open arms in the first place.

The reasons for awarding the 2008 Games to Beijing were, it seems to me, valid back in 2001. And if they were valid then, they are equally valid now (and, if only because of China's increasing importance on the world's economic stage, even more so). Boycotting the Games would be hypocritical and illogical, and it would have no other effect than to humiliate and isolate a country that we should be attempting to engage with.

A boycott - that is to say: a real boycott - should be out of the question. And it probably is: at this moment, no country has yet declared it will not allow its athletes to compete in Beijing.

That, however, leaves open the option of the boycott that isn't. And currently, world leaders - not to mention wannabe world leaders - are scrambling to grab hold of it. Neither the UK's Gordon Brown nor Germany's Angela Merkel, it has recently been announced, will attend the opening ceremony of the Games (although in Brown's case, it's the closing ceremony that counts, given the 2012 Games are in London). The Polish PM, Donald Tusk, has been a little braver is linking his absence unequivocally to the Tibetan issue, whilst today, the European Parliament urged all other European heads of state to follow suit.

Meanwhile, in the US, Clinton and Obama both have prompted Bush to go AWOL as well.

So, it seems, we'll end up with the silliest of all things: a boycott that not only has no impact, but that is intended to have no impact. And rather like Representatives Ney and Jones, we'll all be watching the Games come August to our hearts' content, happily munching our way through our freedom fries (though they'll be stir-fried, this time round) and secure in the knowledge that we Did Something About It All.

In their bid to win the 2008 Games, the Chinese confirmed that the Games would "advance the social agenda of China, including human rights". I suspect that they believe they have adhered to this "pledge", and are in all honesty wondering what on earth hit them.

No comments: