Counterproductive Olympic Protests

Whatever the intent of those organizing protests around the Chinese-hosted Olympics, the effect is largely counterproductive. Protesting a peaceful symbol of national pride merely insults all Chinese people rather than targeting action against the specific and unrelated actions of the Chinese government that protesters oppose. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Olympic Games are themselves a peaceful activity, offensive to nobody. Those wishing to protest specific Chinese government actions focus their protest on the Olympics only to opportunistically exploit the media attention on China during this popular event. This is an understandable tactic in this world of media-driven politics. However, many of the organizers of these protests have no idea of the real affect they have within China.

I am living in China as the dean of an international joint-venture college here. I interact with hundreds of Chinese students, faculty, staff, public officials, and ordinary citizens. Nearly all Chinese people are excited that the Olympics will be held in China for the first time ever. Their reaction to the protests (news of which is not censored here) is that they are ridiculous if not offensive. After all, some Chinese have pointed out to me, the United States is fighting wars and torturing people in secret prisons, but Chinese people do not protest U.S. sporting events. In fact, they are very popular in China. France has riots of Arab residents that are brutally repressed. France sends soldiers all over Africa, but Chinese still enjoy sports competition with France and do not protest. Why is China singled out? China has not fought any wars with anybody for three decades. China has no soldiers occupying foreign countries. (The whole world recognizes that Tibet is part of China.)

Our Chinese students in speech class here even organized a debate about whether Chinese students should organize counter-protests (as many have) against the French demonstrations over China’s Olympics. All the students agree that the foreign protests are ridiculous, but most argue against counter-protests because they believe the anti-Olympic protesters represent few people and are not worth responding to.

Rising Patriotism

To the extent that the protests against the Olympics in China have any effect at all, they have merely stimulated patriotism within China. Quite a few of my Chinese friends here have added to their instant message tags “ China” and “ Olympics” in reaction. Chinese flags are sprouting from dormitory windows all over Chinese campuses.

Many others, especially students and young people, are using instant messaging to organize spontaneous protests, especially at the French supermarket chain Carrefour. They call for a boycott of French products. Some have even run through the stores trashing them. They are especially incensed because French protesters threatened a popular wheelchair-bound Chinese female athlete who was bearing the Olympic torch. If protests occurred, for example, at Chinese embassies regarding specific grievances, they would stir up less animosity. But since protesters are targeting the Olympics, a popular symbol of peaceful international cooperation and national pride, many Chinese people are strongly incensed. They view the protests as hypocritical and discriminatory, since worse actions by other nations are not protested as vocally. Many Chinese believe China is singled out for disproportionate criticism.

While some foreigners might be under the illusion that the Chinese government is stoking these counter-demonstrations, the reality is the opposite. In fact, the demonstrations are spontaneous reactions and reflect broad popular sentiment here. In fact, the government wishes to discourage counter-protests. While the official government press hews to a popular line most Chinese heartily endorse, quietly the government has ordered universities to cancel any large scheduled public events. I believe Chinese government officials are over-reacting in doing this, since the students I know are not so deeply incensed as to engage in any rowdy anti-foreign protests. But clearly the government is worried that further foreign Olympic protests might incite greater anti-foreign anger among ordinary Chinese people, leading perhaps to more serious disturbances.

Tibet and Sudan

Those protesting against China as host of the Olympic Games focus on several issues, including China’s trade with Sudan, China’s suppression of protests in Tibet, and the general human rights situation in China. While all of these are serious issues, none of them is of sufficient gravity to risk incensing the Chinese people as a whole by protesting around Olympic events. Obviously, there might be some issues important enough to justify boycotting Olympics, such as a country wantonly invading another country, as the Soviet Union did to Afghanistan in 1980, prompting the first significant Olympic boycott in history. But the issues at stake here are not so direct and serious. Indeed, by the standards of today’s protesters, few countries in the world would be so blameless as to warrant the honor of Olympic host.

The genocidal repression of the people of Sudan’s region of Darfur is indeed a serious issue that merits the world attention it has gotten. People should pressure their own governments to take appropriate action to end it. Concerned people should support NGOs that are working to help the people of Darfur. However, to blame China for this is grossly hypocritical. China did not put the government of Sudan in power. The government of Sudan is not a puppet of China. China merely has normal trading relations with it. The protesters wish to criminalize normal trading relations.

By such a standard, nearly all countries of the world are guilty of genocide, since nearly all countries have had trading relations (including selling arms) to genocidal regimes in the recent past, and many countries other than China trade with Sudan today. For example, at the time of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the United States was supporting Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq despite the latter’s war of aggression against Iran and its genocidal repression of Kurds and Shiites. Many countries, including especially France, supported Rwanda with arms and trade, despite its genocidal extermination of the Tutsi people.

The issue of greater autonomy for Tibet has also incited many protesters. This is due in part to the articulate advocacy of the Tibetan cause by the exiled Dalai Lama, supported by many Buddhists. Tibetan concerns are similar to those of scores of other minority nationalities around the world seeking greater rights, autonomy, or independence. Most countries in the world face similar challenges. Nearly all countries in the world, especially in Africa and Asia, have artificial and arbitrary boundaries often drawn by Great Power diplomats at some remote conference. It is easy to sympathize with the national aspirations of such diverse people as the Kurds, Palestinians, Tibetans, Basques, Quebecois, Tamils, Native Americans, and hundreds more, especially in Africa. However, each time one nationality achieves an independent state, new problems are created because of the new state’s discrimination against yet more minorities. Nationalism does not solve any problems. Only cosmopolitan tolerance, mutual respect, and human rights can solve the problems of minority peoples in any nation.

Human Rights

Human rights have also become an issue that draws many protesters. I support human rights worldwide. I myself have been a member of a human rights fact-finding team investigating abuses in the Philippines, including torture and extra-judicial executions. I know this is a serious issue in many countries, but I do not believe that it is effective to have broad actions that target the people of entire countries. More focused and specific investigations, and publicity of the results, are more effective because they target specific problems and abuses rather than issuing blanket condemnations of entire nations.

I have visited China many times over the past three decades. There is no doubt that the human rights situation in China has improved considerably. Most people in China today enjoy more freedom in all aspects of life than most foreigners imagine. Any remaining censorship is so limited as to be largely ineffective. The sources of information here are plentiful. Private business flourishes. On the other hand, there are still restrictions on dissent compared with most truly democratic countries. However, the limits on dissent in China are not as great as in many other developing countries. Protests are not encouraged, but many are nonetheless tolerated. China is also a very safe country, with a high degree of public order and civility. It is certainly a vastly safer and happier society than, for example, Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine.

I do not impugn the sincerity of the protesters against China’s hosting of the Olympic Games. I am sure they do believe passionately in the causes they espouse. I am sure they believe they are contributing something positive to the world. But the actual effect of their protests is not what they expect. They merely increase international animosity and stimulate the patriotic sentiments of most Chinese people. However, all these protests and counter-protests are, I believe, merely a tempest in a teapot, signifying little in the end. Their negative impact on international sentiments will be overwhelmed by the positive and cooperative spirit generated by the Olympic Games.

James H. Nolt is campus dean at NYIT Nanjing (China), a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.og).