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No to a Beijing Olympics




July 11, 2001

LONDON - Human rights and sports don't mix. That refrain echoes back to the 1960s when conservatives opposed the breaking of sporting links with apartheid-ridden South Africa. But in the end sporting links were ruptured and nothing hurt the sport loving white South Africans more. It was the beginning of a wake-up call- that the rest of the world did not like the kind of society that its white people wanted to keep in place.

Now this same defence is being trotted out by those who wish to see China being awarded the right to host the 2008 Olympic games, a decision that will be made at the end of the week at the meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Moscow. Those who wish to see China get the games argue, as a senior State Department official said to the Washington Post last week, that it could give China "a powerful but intangible incentive" to improve its human rights performance and to exercise restraint toward Taiwan.

History suggests it's doubtful if holding the games dilutes the psychoses of a society. Probably the reverse. When Hitler's Germany hosted the games in pre-war Berlin it was an excuse for Nazi pageantry and triumphalism. And in more recent years the awarding in quick succession of the games to Los Angeles and Atlanta did not work to make Americans more internationally minded or more supportive of the UN. If China gets the games it will be merely an excuse for Chinese leaders to boast to themselves, to their people and to the world that they are in the A league now and nothing can stop the great march of the Chinese people towards success. There is no evidence at all that it could make them treat their political dissidents with more humanity or ease up on the use of torture or the draconian application of the death penalty.

China since the days in 1793 of the mission of Earl Macartney, emissary of King George 3rd, has kept its distance from the West, preferring to be as "self-contained as a billiard ball", to quote the great historian Alain Peyrefitte. It was Peyrefitte who argued in "The Collision of Civilisations" that Macartney's decision not to kowtow to the emperor gave the Chinese the impression that their civilization was denied. They withdrew into their bunker and have remained there for two hundred years prickly, ultra-sensitive, quick to take offence and too ready to assume the worst of the West's motives.

Thus, among Sinologists, there has developed a strong school of thought that there is only one way of dealing with China - a sort of delayed, reversed kowtow, always leaning over backwards neither to annoy nor to provoke China. This is combined with the propensity of many in the West to project the economic growth rates of the Deng Xiaoping era into the distant future, while taking little note of its paucity of legal and institutional framework (unlike its rival, India) to contain such endeavour. Reasoning of this kind, assuming China will soon mature into a political and military superstate, seems to blight good sense. "It encourages China", as Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, wrote in his provocative book East and West, "to think it can become part of the modern world entirely on its own terms. Were that to happen it would make the world a more dangerous and less prosperous place. China remains the classic case of hope over experience, reminiscent of de Gaulle's famous comment about Brazil: "It has enormous potential and always will.""

If the China of Mao Zedong was long protected by western liberals from censure, it was to find, perhaps to its own surprise, that from the time of President Richard Nixon onwards a new wave of political dispensation came from the right of the political spectrum. Bill Clinton, campaigning to unseat George Bush senior, even charged that Bush was soft on China. Yet once elected he too seemed to bend overboard to placate China. Wei Jingsheng, China's most thoughtful ex political prisoner shrewdly observed in one conversation I had with him: "The Chinese government's concept of human rights has not moved towards the universal standard of human rights. On the contrary, the human rights values of Western politicians have moved closer to those of communist China."

In the spring of last year, however, after much lobbying from human rights activists, there was an important dual shift in US policy. Clinton finally decided that the U.S. would criticize China in the UN Human Rights Commission (without however the support of the major European countries). At the same time Clinton balanced this by finally deciding that the time had come to support China's entry into the World Trade Organisation.

This is probably the right mix: the continuous drumming and tattoo of human rights lobbying, at the same time as trading, commercial and educational links are being strengthened.

But where does the awarding of the Olympic games fit into this balancing act? They are certainly not a right, as Chinese propaganda has sometimes seemed to suggest. They are a gift from the international community. And that should come at the right moment, when the world feels it is opportune to give China the respect that is due to an open and free society. Canada, Japan, France and even Turkey all have a better claim for that than does China today. This is not the time and China is not the place for the Olympic games. We can all wait another four years and then look at the Chinese claim again in the fresh light of hopefully a new day.

I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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