On Boycotting the Beijing Olympics

Recent events — in Darfur, in Tibet, in Burma, and within China — force an inevitable debate about the appropriate political and moral response to China’s hosting of the Summer 2008 Games, and in particular whether some form of boycott is warranted. Unfortunately, if predictably, there has been a good deal more heat than light generated by this debate, which too often reflects clashing axioms rather than informed argument. Since my own expertise lies in understanding Sudan, and in particular the ongoing genocide in Darfur, I’ll necessarily focus on this part of the debate. But few working on Sudan are unaware of the controversies associated with Chinese economic policy and human rights standards elsewhere in Africa.

My own view is that there is a morally intolerable contradiction between Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Games, the preeminent international event in sports, and its deep complicity in the ultimate international crime, genocide in Darfur. I believe we cannot have sporting “business as usual” while China continues to be instrumental in supporting the brutal Khartoum regime in its obstruction of a UN-authorized peace support operation, designed to protect millions of vulnerable Darfuri civilians and the thousands of humanitarian workers upon whom they increasingly depend for survival.

Slippery Slope

Of course “slippery slope” arguments abound in the debate about any form of Olympic boycott. Many center on the foreign policy of the United States, instancing the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. How can we in the United States boycott games in China, the argument goes, when the United States has also committed terrible atrocities. These are indeed deep disgraces to the US, as well as a terrible squandering of moral and political capital of precisely the sort needed in confronting the Khartoum regime. So, I would understand decisions of conscience, by athletes and governments, that put such important issues in the balance the next time the United States hosts the Games. Still, whatever the force of “slippery slope” arguments — “no country is without sin, therefore no political or moral response targeting the Olympic host country can be justified” — we must confront the unsurpassably grim precedent of allowing Nazi Germany to host the Games in Berlin in 1936.

Was it right to attend these Games and the propaganda extravaganza that accompanied them? Should governments, alone or together, have done more to rebuke this brazen display of fascist arrogance? However impressive Jesse Owens’ achievements were, did they counter-balance the implicit international ratification of Hitler’s dictatorship and its racist, militaristic policies? Did the International Olympic Committee do enough to speak out against the conspicuously impending horrors of Nazism? In retrospect the answers are clearly no; at the time, however, there was already far too much evidence that should have precluded attendance under the circumstances readily apparent.

For those inclined to forgive the International Olympic Committee its decision to award the Games to Germany (the IOC decision was made before Hitler assumed the Chancellorship in 1933), we should recall that the IOC would subsequently award the 1940 Winter Olympics to Hitler’s Germany (though the 1939 invasion of Poland seems to have been too much even for the IOC).

What is often lost in present debates and newspaper editorials is that the primary call is for a boycott not of the Beijing Games as a whole, but of the opening ceremonies. The world’s Olympic athletes would not be denied the chance to compete for medals and the honor of their sport. Yet even if the distinction is recognized, attempts to defend such a targeted boycott are just as often met with the thoughtless mantra of “don’t politicize the Games.” This of course ignores just how deeply political these Games have become. They are China’s post-Tiananmen coming-out party, an effort by Beijing to take what it believes is its rightful place on the geopolitical stage. They are in this sense, in their larger ambitions, aptly compared to the 1936 Olympics and Hitler’s attempt to demonstrate Aryan supremacy. To be sure, the crimes of Nazi Germany, which lay primarily in the future, were themselves genocide on an unprecedented scale, while China’s present actions represent deep complicity in Khartoum’s savagely genocidal counter-insurgency war in Darfur. But this difference cannot obscure the profoundly political nature of the two Olympiads or the shared triumphalism meant to overwhelm criticism of abhorrent domestic and international policies.

Darfur

How, then, to assess international advocacy efforts to hold China accountable in its unique role as Olympic host? In particular, how can we speak fully and reasonably about the moral claims Darfur makes upon us in the context of China’s role in Sudan? Again, I leave aside comparable questions about China’s appalling domestic human rights record, its half century of conquest and repression in Tibet, and its support for such regimes as the Burmese junta and the despotic Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Darfur’s claims are of the highest order. The genocidal ambitions that have produced such staggering human suffering and destruction in this tortured region must compel the deepest moral consideration. Approximately half a million people have died from violence and war-related disease and malnutrition since the start of major conflict in 2003. More than 2.6 million people have been forced from their homes, most losing everything as their villages have been destroyed on a clearly ethnic basis. Khartoum’s deliberate, widespread, and systematic targeting of the non-Arab or African tribal populations in Darfur is a matter beyond reasonable dispute, even if a peculiar intellectual diffidence prevents certain organizations and institutions from inferring that such destruction meets all the terms specified by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The overwhelming majority of displaced people are now in camps, often without adequate food or clean water or security. Some 250,000 have been turned into refugees in neighboring Chad, where Darfur’s genocidal violence has continued to bleed with evermore destabilizing consequences. Even as the UN’s World Food Program has just announced that it will soon have to cut food rations by half, 4.4 million people in Darfur need humanitarian assistance.

China and Sudan

China has played a key role in sustaining the Darfur genocide and the enormous risk to regional security in the center of Africa. Beijing has over the past decade been the Khartoum’s primary supplier of weapons and weapons technology. Many weapons of Chinese manufacture continue to find their way into Darfur despite a UN arms embargo on the region. Amnesty International has reported compellingly over the past year on the deadly flow of Chinese weapons, including military aircraft, into Darfur.

China has dominated the oil development consortia, mainly in southern Sudan, and done so in a way deeply destructive of southern civilian lives and livelihoods. As China’s thirst for crude oil grows by more than 10 percent a year, Sudan has emerged as its primary source of offshore oil production. More than two-thirds of Sudan’s oil is imported by China, which shows no signs of caring for the human costs of oil extraction.

China has provided as much as $15 billion in capital and commercial investments to the Khartoum-dominated economy in Sudan. It has insulated the Sudanese regime from its profligate ways — massive external debt would be crippling without Chinese investment – and helped consolidate the regime’s stranglehold on national wealth and power.

Most consequentially, China has continuously blocked effective UN action on Darfur, threatening to veto Security Council resolutions, weakening others, and all the while refusing to countenance any form of sanctions in the event of Khartoum’s non-compliance with UN demands or agreements signed by the regime. Insecurity, which poses the greatest threat to civilians and humanitarians in Darfur, derives directly from the arrogant defiance that Beijing has for years encouraged in Khartoum’s génocidaires. Informed UN officials and Western diplomats make clear that China is the primary obstacle to generating serious diplomatic pressure on the regime to end its obstructionist ways. Nine months after passage of the Security Council resolution authorizing 26,000 civilian police and troops, with a robust mandate to protect civilians and humanitarians, only an ill-equipped third of the force is in place, most left over from the hopelessly inadequate African Union force in Darfur. The impending rainy season will soon make additional deployments logistically almost impossible. All the while security continues to deteriorate, threatening to force a large-scale withdrawal of humanitarian operations and wholesale human destruction

Denying Beijing

China’s complicity in all of this is too clear, too destructive, too deeply contravening not only of the spirit and charter of the Olympics but of all respect for international law. Denying Beijing the reward of its desired audience for the Games’ opening ceremonies, holding the Chinese regime relentlessly accountable for those actions enabling of genocide, makes both moral and political sense.

Though not nearly successful enough, the highlighting of China’s role in the Darfur genocide has already produced a number of unprecedented actions, including Beijing’s appointment of a special envoy for Darfur, voting for (rather than abstaining from) the resolution authorizing a Darfur protection force, and publicly declaring that Khartoum should show “more flexibility” in allowing for UN deployment.

This is not enough. But it is more than enough to demonstrate the efficacy of the current campaign to highlight China’s intolerable role in sustaining the Darfur genocide. The threat to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Games is at once morally compelling and politically efficacious. In the context of complicity in genocide, the crude mantra of “don’t politicize the games” becomes an even cruder moral acquiescence.

Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).