Why I am Boycotting the China Olympics

charles c. haynes Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

The International Olympic Committee and the megabucks corporate sponsors of the games breathed a sigh of relief when the China Olympics got under way last week with no major boycotts or disruptions.

Last spring, faced with widespread outrage over China’s brutal suppression of Tibetan protesters and stubborn support for murderous regimes in Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe, IOC chairman Jacques Rogge nervously insisted “a boycott doesn’t solve anything.”

Rogge may be right. But that hasn’t stopped people of conscience around the world from banging freedom’s drum to counter the noisy celebrations of “peace and harmony” emanating from Beijing.

One small but telling protest caught my eye: Masahisa Tsujitani, a Japanese maker of the iron balls used by most shot-put medalists in the last four Olympics, refused to provide his product for the China games. “I feel badly for the athletes who won’t get to use my shots, but after Tibet I know I’m right,” Tsujitani told the Los Angeles Times in April. “Enough is enough.”

Apparently, enough is not enough for President Bush (the first American president to attend the Olympics outside of the U.S.) or for the other 100 world leaders whose presence at the opening ceremonies spoke volumes about China’s growing great-power clout.

For me, at least, the hypocrisy quotient is too high to stomach. That’s why I’m not watching the games. Of course, my private boycott won’t affect the Nielsen ratings one whit. Nor will my vow to avoid products sold by the 12 major corporate sponsors of the Olympics cause Coca-Cola executives to lose any sleep.

Nevertheless, it’s the least I can do for Gao Zhisheng, the human rights lawyer currently imprisoned by the Chinese government — and for the countless other prisoners of conscience in detention centers and forced labor camps throughout China.

Gao “disappeared” a year ago. But news of his torture has leaked out. According to an informant quoted by Sound of Hope Radio, Chinese authorities stripped Gao naked, “threw him to the ground and attacked him with electric batons.”

The treatment of Gao is typical of the torture routinely meted out to members of Fulan Gong, a spiritual movement in China that has been viciously repressed by the government for years. Gao’s crime was that he dared to speak out against the brutal treatment of Fulan Gong practitioners.

For all of the hype about how giving China the Olympics would lead to more openness and concern for human rights by Beijing, the opposite has taken place. No one is fooled by the few cosmetic attempts to placate dissent — such as the absurd “protest pens” inside three city parks. Chinese authorities are doing everything possible to stamp out any sign of protest — and are working overtime to keep the lid on freedom of speech, press and religion.

As documented by Freedom House, a widely respected human rights organization, China harasses and restricts Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and members of other religions, imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world, and heavily censors the Internet (with the cooperation of foreign companies). Half of the world’s population living in countries designated “not free” by Freedom House live in China.

Much of the lofty rhetoric about the “non-political” nature of these (or any) Olympics is pure nonsense. The 2008 summer games are a political and economic bonanza for China, much as the 1936 games were a propaganda victory for Hitler’s Germany (despite the embarrassment to the Nazis caused by the star performance of Jesse Owens, the great African-American track-and-field star).

So why do so many world leaders and corporate CEOs hold their noses while China holds the games? Follow the gold.

The real winners in Beijing aren’t on the medal stands — they’re the Olympic sponsors and other corporations who are salivating at the prospect of tapping into the world’s largest untapped consumer market. Play by Chinese rules and the payoff could be worth billions.

Wearing face masks may ameliorate the dirty air of Beijing – but there’s no face-saving mask big enough to cover up the moral pollution of the China Olympics.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].