May 8, 2008

Fanning the flames

In its trek across the six continents, the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch has been engulfed by a series of political and ideological battles and subjected to criticism (and occasionally capture) from journalists, human-rights groups, Free Tibet advocates, and other parties dissatisfied with the Chinese government’s human rights record. If the story of the torch relay is any indication, we’re on the brink of the most controversial Games since Moscow in 1980.

Just as the U.S.­–led boycott rightfully highlighted Soviet political repression, today’s protesters urging a boycott of the Beijing Games make many valid points about China’s tainted human rights record. They correctly mention Beijing’s narrow-minded disregard of Tibetan and Uyghur claims to hegemony, especially in light of the recent uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. They also float valid concerns about political and religious freedom, as more and more world leaders turn a blind eye to human rights with hopes of reaping the benefits of the fastest-growing industrial economy in the world.

But while the ends of the hard-line protesters are honest, their means are both ineffective and overly inflammatory. Their emotional displays at torch relay ceremonies and their stubborn adherence to a boycott of both the Games and, in some cases, of Chinese goods only dash hopes for improvement in this big year. One of the most vocal supporters for a boycott is “Reporters Without Borders,” a coalition of journalists advocating freedom of the press and encouraging a media boycott of the Olympics to protest the country’s poor record in this regard.

While these journalists are rightfully dissatisfied with the Chinese government, they overlook the ramifications of their actions. By refusing to travel to Beijing to attend the Olympics, they restrict opportunities to report on progress or lack thereof on the part of the government in curbing violations of press freedom.

Were powerful governments to line up behind the protesters and threaten or even enact economic sanctions against China, it would undermine the enormous gains already made by China in the human rights department over the last 30 years. Protesters alone cannot expect their stubbornness to be met with reconciliation on the part of Beijing; they only isolate themselves from working constructively with both China and other world leaders to engage the human rights situation with a hands-on approach.

While they aren’t publicized as well, there are organizations that take a more constructive approach toward improving the human rights situation in China. One such agency is simply called Human Rights in China (HRIC). Founded in March 1989 by Chinese students and scholars from around the globe, the organization concludes its mission statement by stating that human rights gains in China will be the result of “a long-term process of engaging multiple international actors, including the media, governments, corporations, various United Nations bodies, and other multilateral organizations.” One of HRIC’s campaigns, entitled “Take Action 2008,” is directed at alleviating the often deadly consequences of rampant pollution in the country, but the campaign organizers also make it clear that their goal is to cooperate with as many governments and organizations as possible, including the Chinese Communist Party, to ensure that China sticks to its promises to curb harmful emissions and protect the health of its people.

With no signs of any impending boycott on the part of governments, the international community appears ready to give Beijing its first real chance to shine in the world spotlight. After what will likely be in-depth attempts by human rights advocates to assess China’s progress in an Olympic year, a poor showing would not only stain China’s image, but would also lead the IOC to question its decision to grant Beijing the Games in the first place. The boycotters may be laughing then, but until that point, Beijing has the opportunity to convince the world that it deserves Olympic honor and glory.