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Last Updated: 05/08/2008
Pride, Protests, and the Beijing Olympics
Ross Ryan

It is terribly unfortunate, but pride and peace are not always easy to reconcile with one another. And short of international war, or the World Cup, it is hard to imagine a more ostentatious display of national pride than the Olympic Games.

It’s not necessarily the fault of the Games themselves, which I actually believe to be essential for building international peace – but somewhere along the line, the Olympic ideals of amateur athleticism, fair play, and the love of sport have been swallowed up by narrower goals of nationalism, political grandstanding, and lining the pockets of wealthy developers.

Despite all the bad press about the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, however, this is not entirely China’s fault. It has long been considered a national honour to host the Olympics, and nations of all kinds have proudly waved their flags and sent the Olympic Torch through other countries for decades – why would it be any different for the Chinese? In fact, the idea that the Chinese government should not be proud of their economic success – let alone the honour of hosting the Olympics – is simply unreasonable.

Of course we should be critical of China’s policies, especially those in Tibet and Sudan and the recent weapons shipment to Zimbabwe, but attacking China’s national pride – by snuffing the Olympic Torch and boycotting the opening ceremonies – will almost certainly prove ineffective for actually changing them. These actions are easily dismissed as “anti-Chinese” just as critics of American and Israeli policies are often labelled “anti-American” or “anti-Semitic.” We have seen it too many times to ignore: attacking national pride leads to defensive, kneejerk reactions which deflect attention from more substantial policy discussions.

In this case, I think there is far more to be gained from actually engaging with the Beijing Olympics. China is opening itself up in a very real way to international influence, having literally invited the world into its country to share in the spectacle of the Olympic Games. The interactions between people and the experiences of athletes, even on a very human level, are sure to have a profound and lasting impact on everyone involved. As peace researchers have been arguing for years, these simple interactions between people are more effective for changing mentalities, breaking down stereotypes, and building peace than all the political speeches and protests put together.

To read the North American and European coverage of this issue, even from liberal and progressive sources, you would think that China was the very epicentre of human rights violations and pollution. Apart from being a poor strategy for actually improving things, however, this caricature of China ends up hiding the faces of many others who are heavily invested in these policies and are in a position to change them.

It’s true, for example, that most of Sudan’s oil business is controlled by state energy corporations based in China, India, and Malaysia, but these companies answer to shareholders and investor groups largely located in western countries. It might not be as fun as rushing the Olympic Torch, but applying adequate pressure to these financial groups (as Amnesty International is suggesting) and the many mining and utility companies that facilitate the oil business in Sudan (such as those based in Canada) would have a much more immediate and substantial effect.

An even more effective strategy – addressing the pollution issue now – would be to change consumer habits. It really doesn’t make sense to buy so many made-in-China plastic products and textiles and then blame the Chinese government for the pollution involved in the production process. Pollution and the inefficient use of energy resources are problems that we all have to address, since we are all part of the economic system responsible for them. Less consumption in general and consumer support for well managed local industries would be giant leaps in the right direction.

It is important to remember that, although China is a “rising power”, it is still very much a developing country. Industries designed to satisfy the consumer demands of developed countries have relocated their factories to China in order to take advantage of the lower environmental and labour standards and maximize their profits – a pattern repeated throughout the developing world. Business elites get more money, consumers get cheaper products, workers in developed countries lose their jobs, and (in this case) the Chinese people and environment absorb the costs.

It is interesting that the Chinese government’s efforts to showcase green technologies this year and make this the first “green Olympics” have attracted so little attention in mainstream media. I suppose it just doesn’t fit with the stereotype of "us" caring about the environment and "them" destroying it.

Politically speaking, it is no wonder that representatives of the British and French governments are talking about boycotting the opening ceremonies – it’s a welcome deflection from their own misadventures in Africa and the Middle East, and they get to score some easy points while China takes the blame. Giving credit where credit is due, I think that the diplomatic American policy of supporting the Beijing Olympics, while simultaneously backing the Dalai Lama’s bid for meaningful autonomy and religious freedom in Tibet is the right move at this point.

It’s clearly not an ideal situation, and most of us would like to see a Free Tibet, not an autonomous Tibet. But this brings us back to the issue of national pride and the challenge of working for peace by peaceful means.

The Tibetan independence movement is remarkable for its strong commitment to non-violence and enlightened strategy. It takes longer, and isn’t as easily glorified in national mythology, but a steady, righteous, and non-violent demand for justice is easy to support and hard to oppose – and I have no doubt that they will succeed in the end. The important point for those of us supporting their cause, however, is that peace is never brought about by antagonising the other, but through a process of gradual social change, meaningful negotiation, thoughtful refection, and multi-cultural exchange.

In this spirit, I don’t see why we can’t keep on peacefully pressuring our governments and industries to respect human rights and the environment everywhere (including China) – and still enjoy the games.