Boycotting the Olympics West Afraid to Risk Isolating Beijing

China has done everything it can to present itself in a positive light ahead of the Olympics. But its crackdown on protests in Tibet are showing the darker side of the regime. Calls for a boycott, however, are unlikely to succeed as the last thing the West wants to do is push China into isolation.

Tibetan activists in Seoul denounce the Chinese government's actions.

Tibetan activists in Seoul denounce the Chinese government's actions.

The West considers China to be an economic powerhouse and vital trading partner, and the inconvenient fact that it is also an authoritarian one-party state is often papered over. But this week's crackdown in Tibet has thrown the darker side of the regime into focus. A boycott of the Olympics is still unlikely.

The events of the past few days have dashed China's hopes of a smooth run up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing. The brutal crackdown on protests in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and in parts of western China have seen to that. Tibetan exiles claim as many as 80 were killed in the violence that erupted on Friday following four days of peaceful protests by monks marking the anniversary of the failed uprising against China in 1959. After ordinary Tibetans began to attack the police and army, the authorities struck back.

The United States and other governments have called for restraint but it is highly unlikely that there will be a repeat of 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics by the United States and several other countries in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (The Soviet Union and a bloc of allied nations retaliated in 1984 by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics.)

Even the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has stopped short of calling for a boycott of the games. While describing China's policy in Tibet as "cultural genocide," he also said Beijing should be "reminded to be a good host." But there is disagreement among Tibetans; more radical exiles have called for a boycott. The leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress, Tsewang Rigzin, told reporters on Monday that "China does not deserve to host the Olympics" and attacked the Dalai Lama's insistence on a non-violent campaign for autonomy rather than independence.

Although French Socliast leader Francois Hollande said Monday that France should consider boycotting the games, on the whole the European Union is insisting it does not want to see politics and sport get mixed up. This makes sense -- at least economically. The EU and China are moving closer all the time in terms of economic links. Bilateral trade doubled between 2000 and 2005, reaching €238 billion in 2006 ($370). Europe is China's largest export market and China is Europe's prime source of imports.

On Monday the European Union sports ministers were quick to point out that they opposed any talk of a boycott. Slovenia's Sports Minister Milan Zver said it was not up to athletes to be in the forefront of political campaigning. Danish Sports Minister Brian Mikkelsen said a boycott was the wrong idea. "What will that help? It would really mix politics and sports." The European Sports Commissioner Jan Figel told Reuters before the meeting: "The Olympics should be used as a way of engaging with China. I don’t support a boycott."

The Olympics committees are also playing down any talk of a boycott. While the International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge expressed his concern about the crackdown on Sunday, he dismissed talk of boycotts. "We believe that the boycott doesn't solve anything," Rogge said.

Olympics Blues

Even before the trouble in Tibet, though, China had faltered in its attempt to buff its image ahead of the games. Just last week China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi lashed out at Washington for criticizing his country's human rights record. This was despite that fact that the US State Department had actually chosen to remove China from its list of top 10 human rights abusers. But the State Department still took issue with Beijing for restrictions on free speech, censorship, its treatment of its prisoners and the forced relocation of people to make way for projects relating to the Olympic Games -- criticisms Jiechi described as belonging to a "Cold War mentality."

Another public relations disaster for Beijing was Hollywood director Steven Spielberg's decision in February to step aside as artistic director for the Olympics after a lobby campaign by activists on the issue of Darfur. China has deep economic links to Sudan and has been accused of blocking the UN's attempts to taking tougher action on the terrible violence there.

The issue of pollution generated by Asia's industrial giant has also raised the question of whether athletes are taking a health risk by competing in smoggy Beijing. The Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie even pulled out of the Olympic marathon due to concerns about the air quality in the city.

Carrying the Torch -- Up Everest, Through Tibet

Now the fiercest protests in Tibet in 20 years are embarrassing China's communist rulers, who have proved particularly sensitive about any Western criticism of its policies in that province.

Just days before the violence erupted in Lhasa, a scholar on Tibetan Buddhism named Robert Thurman told a seminar at the Heritage Foundation that China was "hypersensitive" about Tibet. He said, "The reason it's very hard to raise the issue of Tibet in any place, anywhere in the world, is that China works very hard to suppress any mention of Tibet."

This was made apparent in recent months in a diplomatic near-freeze between Berlin and Beijing. After German Chancellor Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama in her office in Berlin, China reacted with fury, cancelling a number of high profile meetings with German officials and ministers.

But relations have begun to thaw in the meantime, and now the Berlin government has added its voice to those rejecting a boycott. In an interview in the Monday edition of mass circulation Bild, Chancellor Merkel said that a boycott would backfire and exacerbate the situation in China.

There are just two weeks to go before the Olympic celebrations officially kick off with the relay of the Olympic torch to Mount Everest. The torch run is scheduled to pass through Tibet as well; the planned route winds through the cities of Shannan Diqu and Lhasa in June. Last week the Chinese authorities even banned expeditions on its side of Mount Everest until after the Olympic torch makes a scheduled ascent with a team of climbers on May 10 -- a move that reflects government concerns that Tibet activists could disrupt the event. (Nepal has since cooperated with the ban on its side of the mountain.)

Some activists are calling for the IOC to at least scrap plans to carry the torch through Tibet. The Students for a Free Tibet said in a statement on Saturday: "It will either dangerously exacerbate tensions or simply make the IOC complicit in China's repression of Tibetans to assure a successful propaganda exercise for China."

Pro-Tibet demonstrators are planning to mount a protest to the same effect on Tuesday outside the International Olympic Committee's Swiss headquarters.

As for the issue of a boycott, it is not unclear what it would accomplish other that push China into isolation. Apart from its sizeable economic clout, China has become an important factor in global affairs, from fighting global warming to thwarting nuclear-weapons programs in governments like Iran. Meanwhile, failing to turn up for the Olympics party is not necessarily going to ease the plight of the Tibetans.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is skeptical about the effectiveness of this type of action. "I just don’t think a boycott for any reason -- be it Tibet or Darfur -- will have any of the effect that people who support these issues want," he told Reuters.

The Olympics historian David Wallechinsky told Associated Press that a boycott was highly unlikely. The IOC went ahead with the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 even though hundreds of peaceful protestors were killed just days before the event. Nevertheless he criticized the original decision to let China host the Games. "The IOC asked for trouble when they put the Olympics in a country run by a dictatorship" he said. "Now it's come back to haunt them."



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