Tibet and Olympic Games

by Gregory Clark

Events in Tibet have turned ugly. Once again we see the harm caused by Beijing’s heavy-handed bureaucracy, and its panicky, untrained soldiers used for crowd control. But even when combined with all of Beijing’s other alleged sins — Darfur, pollution, human rights and other issues — does Tibet justify the calls for a boycott of Beijing’s planned Olympic Games later this year?

Olympic boycotts are a clumsy and biased weapon. Moscow had its 1980 Olympics boycotted because of its intervention in Afghanistan. But the Western, including British, intervention today in Afghanistan, while weaker in its ferocity, is almost identical in its motives — support for an unstable government with idealistic goals but unable to cope with domestic insurgents. Would anyone use that to boycott the planned London Olympics? Hardly.

Hypocrisy taints most of the other accusations against Beijing. Take Darfur, for example. Beijing is criticized for weapons sales to a Sudanese government guilty of assisting attacks on defenseless villagers, and refusing to intervene politically to help prevent those attacks. Yet nonintervention in the affairs of other nations was once a proudly proclaimed Western principle, aimed to end all wars in the 20th century. Now China is criticized for obeying that principle.

As for selling weapons to governments behaving atrociously against their own peoples, that has long been standard Western behavior. During the East Timor, Papua and Aceh atrocities in Indonesia, Britain was busily selling Jakarta the military aircraft it wanted. The handful of brave British women who tried physically to prevent those sales were jailed. Few complained.

Western armies are also known to attack defenseless villagers at times, as in Indochina before, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. True, those armies can claim they only attack people supporting the civil-war enemy, but the Sudan government can say exactly the same over Darfur. The cruelties of its attacks there have yet to match the defoliation and free-fire zone tactics of the United States in Indochina. Of all the Western nations, only the Scandinavians at the time had the moral courage to halt arms sales to the U.S. in protest.

China is criticized as the great global polluter and user of scarce resources. But in one almost completely overlooked respect it has done far more than any of the rest of us to overcome both problems. This is its one-child policy. If not for that policy, China today would have to feed, clothe and accommodate an estimated extra 300 million to 400 million people — more than the entire population of Western Europe. The strain on world resource supplies and the environment would have been unbearable.

But to do this Beijing has had to court severe unpopularity at home. And it now has to live with two unfortunate results — a serious male-female population imbalance and rapid aging of the population. No one thanks Beijing for making these sacrifices. On the contrary. Some Western conservatives see the one-child policy as yet another Beijing evil.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s impressive efforts to increase nuclear and hydro-power and so reduce dependence on polluting coal are criticized by our Western antinuclear, antidam progressives. China, it seems, just can’t win, no matter what it does. It is the six-ton elephant that everyone likes to bash.

Similarly with many other criticisms. Beijing should admit that policy mistakes were made in Tibet in the 1960s, and that the Han Chinese immigration there since has caused frictions. For cultural reasons Chinese do not blend easily with other peoples. Resentments flare up easily, as we saw before in the anti-Chinese riots of Malaysia and Indonesia.

But Beijing can also point out that some of its early troubles could have been avoided if the CIA and New Delhi hawks had not set out to instigate the original 1959 Tibetan rebellion. As for Tibetan independence, people forget that the strongest opponent was the Western-backed Nationalist Chinese government that ended up in Taiwan. Beijing simply inherited that Western-approved situation.

Hypocrisy dogs the criticisms of China over democracy and human rights also. China at least goes through the motions of providing trials and prison sentences for the occasional activist dissident it sees as dangerous. Nonactivists are largely ignored.

What were the U.S. and some of its friends doing when Latin American governments of the 1970s were arbitrarily arresting and torturing dissidents in the tens of thousands and throwing their broken bodies into the ocean or unmarked graves? Almost nothing. Their agents were busy providing lists of more dissidents to be tracked down.

The U.S. has an impressive track record of supporting dictatorships that it sees as friendly even if they suppress human rights, and working to overthrow democratically elected governments if it sees them as unfriendly.

Beijing has already moved to introduce democracy at the grassroots level. It plans to go further up, but there are limits. Does anyone imagine, for example, that its unpopular one-child policy would survive if China had free national elections?

Singapore is another Sinitic culture society that believes in a strong semi-autocratic government able to impose unpopular but needed policies as preferable to the Western free democratic model. Few see Singapore as the epitome of all undemocratic evil.

I do not want to whitewash all that Beijing does. During the Cultural Revolution and “ping-pong diplomacy” periods of the early ’70s, I saw at close quarters how unpleasant and unreasonable its officials can be. But you judge a nation by the direction in which it is traveling, not by the road bumps. And China is clearly moving in a direction of very considerable promise to us all. The Olympics, like ping-pong diplomacy, will push China further in that direction.

Gregory Clark was formerly China desk officer in the Australian Department of External Affairs, and is now vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on: www.gregoryclark.net.