The Empire Strikes Back? Jayati Ghosh

Despite all protestations to the contrary, sports have never been apolitical. And among sports, the Olympics have probably been the most political of all, from their origins in ancient Greece when different city states used them as another means of war, to the more recent episodes when either the host country or other nations have used the events as vehicles for geopolitical statements or means of settling political scores.

So perhaps it is no surprise that, several months before they are actually held, the Beijing Olympics scheduled for August 2008 have already become the focus of so much hectic political activity in different parts of the world. Even so, the nature of the various protests around this particular event, the different features of China’s reality and the Chinese government’s policies that have been taken up for criticism, and the ferocity of the moral righteousness that have accompanied the criticism, do occasion surprise.

The surprise is also because in the recent past the Olympics have been largely non-controversial at least with respect to the location, even if there have been other issues related to the sports themselves (such as doping of athletes and the like). Yet the 2008 Beijing Olympics – the first Olympics to be held in the developing world in twenty years and only the third after Mexico City in 1968 and Seoul in 1988 – has become the object of almost continuous protest for several months now. These protests have occurred on the basis of a wide range of constantly shifting accusations against host country China.

The government of China had obviously seen the Beijing Olympics as an enormous international public relations exercise, marking the recent emergence of China as a major player on the world’s economic and political stage. It also had internal socio-political repercussions in China, with the Olympics designed to add to national pride and self-confidence, whereby achievement in sports, glittering new infrastructure and impressive hospitality become proxies for many other aspects of self-esteem and cause for celebration.

Yet the carping and the denigration from the rest of the world began early and have not stopped, although the professed reasons have varied. It began more than a year ago with some athletes and sportspersons expressing fears about high air pollution levels in Beijing, which they claimed would adversely affect their performance at the event and possibly even their future health.

Promises by the Chinese government to address air pollution concerns by the time of the games were not taken seriously. Several high profile athletes such as marathon runner Haile Gebreselassie and some tennis players declared that they would not take part because of these concerns. Next there were comments on the poor quality of the water supply and urban sanitation in Beijing, even though these are actually better than in most cities of the developing world.

Then the criticism became more overtly political. It began with a focus on China’s foreign policy. The Chinese government was attacked for maintaining relations with the military junta in Myanmar, especially after the crackdown on the protest by monks in late 2007. Surprisingly, even eminent personages such as Desmond Tutu made statements suggesting that if China did not take a stance against the military rulers in Myanmar he would “join a campaign to boycott the Beijing Olympics”. This threat was made even though many other governments, including the South African government that Tutu has been a part of, did not make any open declarations condemning the Myanmar government at the time.

Next it was China’s attitude to Sudan and the trouble in the Darfur region that came under attack. China was accused of providing financial and diplomatic support to the government of Sudan, which in turn was supporting militia groups against a separatist uprising in Darfur province.  The humanitarian crisis in Darfur suddenly became China’s fault, even though China was only one among many countries that avoided taking sides on this internal conflict. Hollywood stars jumped onto this particular bandwagon, with actress Mia Farrow calling for a boycott, and Steven Spielberg resigned from his post as Artistic Advisor to the Beijing Olympics on this count. Yet it is rare to hear of any Hollywood stars (including these two) making public protests against the US government’s open support of so many murderous dictatorships across the world, in the past or at present.

And now it is the turn of Tibet to become the focus of anti-China protest. The Tibetan struggle for independence is around five decades old, and the recognition of most countries in the world that Tibet is an integral part of China is of even older duration. The “government-in-exile” of the Dalai Lama in India has been active in keeping alive global perceptions of Tibetan demands. These obviously intensified during and after the recent violent protests in Tibet, during which rampaging mobs rioted and were also quelled with force by the authorities.

But even after that violence subsided, that particular half-century old struggle has now become the latest weapon of China critics, and the protests and attempts to disrupt the passage of the Olympic flame on its scheduled journey across several countries have been focussed mainly on the Tibet issue. This most recent assault by moralistic protestors on what should be an international symbol of harmony has been based on the flimsiest of pretexts, and has been followed by an astonishing series of calls for boycott, especially in the developed countries.

Note that nothing has really changed on the ground in Tibet in the past month. All that has happened is a few very public and prominent protests by some Tibetan exiles and their supporters in different parts of the world, which have been given much media attention and relatively sympathetic treatment by local authorities. Yet suddenly there are calls from all over the world to resolve the Tibet problem, including by those whose own governments have less than admirable human rights records.

Thus, various European leaders who have systematically encouraged and promoted avaricious and authoritarian regimes in their ex-colonies now feel that they must chastise China and threaten to boycott the Olympics. President Sarkozy of France has apparently made his attendance at the opening ceremony conditional upon “an end to violence against the population and the release of political prisoners, light to be shed on the events in Tibet and the opening of dialogue with the Dalai Lama.” Other leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have already declared that they will not attend.

In the United States, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has called upon George Bush to boycott the opening ceremony because of the denial of “human rights” in Tibet. It is interesting that no one seems to ask what Ms. Clinton has to say of the human rights of those held in US prisons in Guantanamo Bay, including those who were abducted by the Americans from their own countries in secret “renditions” to undergo torture on flimsy suspicions of being associated with terrorist activities. In any case, it hardly behoves those who have actually sent troops to Iraq as part of a murderous imperialist invasion and destroyed human security in that country for more than a decade, to speak of human rights violations in Tibet.

It is likely that humanitarian concerns were not uppermost in Ms. Clinton’s mind. Rather, it was an attempt at China-bashing to pander to the grievances of Americans who are convinced that they are losing jobs to Chinese workers and worried by that country’s recent rise. Significantly, even the other Democratic presidential hopeful, Barrack Obama, has duly called for President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony.

The double standards and false moral superiority of those who are currently using the Olympics to attack China are quite striking. But they still do not explain the question that immediately strikes one: why? Why is there such anger against China such that any excuse is immediately seized upon to pour scorn or opprobrium on it and somehow diminish its attempts to hold the Olympic Games? What is the sub-text of this rash of international disapproval? Or, as a Beijing resident asked a foreign journalist “why do they hate us so much?”

It could be that it is not hatred that is driving all this frenzy of criticism, so much as deep disquiet. Disquiet about the very features that China seeks to showcase in the Olympics: its newfound economic strength and continuing international competitiveness; its enormous and relatively disciplined population with huge potential for the future; the currently stable polity and the rapid expansion of infrastructure.

All these can be sources of pride for Chinese, but they can also be threatening to the outside world and in particular to imperialism and its allies. Of course, the lack of internal political democracy makes it easy for the outside world to find flaws with the system within which all this is occurring. But the basic cause of external unease is probably not the absence of democracy in China, as leaders in the West have always been able to condone the lack of democracy elsewhere when it suits them strategically. Rather, it is probably because these same leaders feel threatened by the emergence of a new power, and a relative diminution of their own geopolitical influence. It should be borne in mind that apparent concern for “human rights” has now become the chosen instrument of those who wish to break up big states in the developing world.

So the current cascade of censure and the high moral tone taken by international leaders and activists – particularly those in the North – may reflect a deeper tendency in international relations, a disinclination to cede power at any level to upstart nations that should know that their place belongs in the lower rungs of the global ladder. China is particularly disturbing because of its sheer size. It is big enough that its rise would do more than damage existing hierarchies – it could threaten to overturn the ladder itself.