Thursday, April 10, 2008

China, the Olympics and Tibet

I've heard some interesting arguments over the past two days on why we should allow China to host the Olympic Summer Games in a few months, effectively ignoring their human rights record. I thought I'd address some of them here:

"We shouldn't make the Olympics political"
It's easy not to make the Olympics political when the host country isn't guilty of human rights abuses. It's easy when the host country is becoming the world's largest consumer society. But, at its heart, Olympism is not about politics. Its about showing the universality of common good and ethics. Human rights abuses are happening everyday all around the world. Its an unfortunate fact. The difference here is that the world has chosen to reward a country, guilty of oppression and cultural assassination, with an international commendation (The Olympic Games). This is not what the Olympics were founded on and challenging this type of political and cultural oppression is actually elemental to the Olympic spirit. From the Olympic Charter:
"Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
Last I checked, human rights are a fundamentally ethical principle that we all agree on, and one that we have to continually enforce.

Principle #2:
The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

China is hardly advocating the "harmonious development of man," nor are they "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." If they were, you wouldn't be seeing so many people in the streets. And if they were, the Dalai Llama wouldn't have been exiled to a foreign country after thousands of years living in Tibet. That the International Olympic Committee is permitting China to host the Olympic Games this summer actually goes against its own principles.

Principle #5
Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

It's nice that the Olympic Charter stands against discrimination when it comes to sports, but what about religion and free speech and a free press in one's own country? This is a contradiction if the IOC chooses to ignore the political state of the countries involved in this display of "harmonious development of man." What would the IOC do if Rwanda or Somalia were to host this summer's games?

The Role of the International Olympic Committee: Under the mission and role of IOC, articles 4, 5 and 6:
4. to cooperate with the competent public or private organisations and authorities in the endeavour to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace;
5. to take action in order to strengthen the unity and to protect the independence of the Olympic Movement;
6. to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement;

I would argue that Chinese abuse of human rights (even rumors of such actions in Tibet and other parts of their country) is enough of an argument to show that China has broken their commitment to the IOC and, as a member, should be investigated or temporarily barred from the IOC and therefore not eligible to host the Summer Games in 2008. The Olympics in China, if they are held, are not promoting peace and will not serve humanity when hosted by a country that has avoided international investigation around human rights and political freedoms. #4 speaks directly to the unity that the IOC loves to talk about but fails to activate when tenuous issues arise. Never has the IOC suggested dropping the Olympic Games during these moments - Germany in 1936, Moscow in 1980 - instead, the effort was led by other coalitions of countries.

to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes;

This one seems pretty self-explanatory. If I'm a Tibetan distance runner and I am forced to where China's flag when I don't identify as Chinese, shouldn't the IOC advocate and support the athlete?

to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly;

This is less about the athletes and more about the history of Chinese environmental degradation. If the IOC were serious about this commitment they would demand China make much more significant reforms in cleaning up the air and water for the world's top athletes.

"The protests were violent"
This is, as always, relative. Some people might call the Iraq War violent, and they would be right. These protests were not all. The most dramatic moments were when non-violent protesters were forcibly removed from blocking streets. There were many heated debates, screaming advocates on both sides of the issue. But not violence. However, I would argue that police used some violent tactics to "remove" these folks, including myself. I don't mind being dragged (I actually expect it as I'm not a small person to carry) but being punched was something I had to raise an eyebrow at. The police are people too, and are just as susceptible to emotional reactions resulting in "violence." I understand that -- and being yelled at and even pushed (hard) by police is not surprising in these situations. The problem is, they're the ones carrying guns, billy clubs, cuffs, zip-ties and wearing helmets, so the balance of power is clearly in their hands, not those protesting. And when a policeman drags you to the curb, puts a knee in your kidney and then picks you up by the collar and throws you into the curb, its ironic to remember that you are the one paying their salaries. "Hey Sergeant, that was well done! I'll be sure to tell the chief to give you that holiday bonus this year. You got an extra band-aid?"

These protests were hardly violent. If the media and those looking to blame free-speech for "their day in the sun" want to push that story, its extremely unfortunate. If anything, the response from the police and security force was violent, not the protesters.

"Protesting the torch is an insult to the rest of the world community"
I have a hard time believing that any type of free-speech is an insult to the world. After all, thats what this country was founded on and is what western democracies and governments are most proud of: our freedom organize and speak freely. The Boston tea party was called an insult to the world by the British sympathizers in the colonies during the beginnings of the American Revolution in 1773. Now, here sit the very same status-quo members of society shaking their heads at protests that are more than (imagine this) standing still with a sign. Martin Luther King didn't stand still. Susan B. Anthony didn't drop her sign when heads shook. Neither should we.

At the heart of this comment, though, is the belief that some things just shouldn't be politicized. But the problem with that perspective is that no "thing" cannot avoid politics. Its ingrained in our lives and cultures and is a part of everything we do. You could argue that schools shouldn't be political, but we know that some of the most fiercely debated issues occur in PTA and school board meetings every week. More importantly, it isn't bad! Politics and discussion isn't going to hurt us and if anything we need more of it not less. Protests like this one, bringing to light the issue of Tibetan freedom and right to exist without Chinese domination, are simply there to elevate the discussion and bring it to the forefront of the international conversation. And clearly, a discussion needs to be had -- from Paris to London to San Francisco and Beijing.

Heres to hoping for an honest discussion and challenging the assumed status of Olympic Games in a country that ignores human rights and freedoms that we say we fight for.

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