Why I don’t support the Olympic torch protesters

We’ve all seen the footage. Demonstrators decked out in Tibetan flags being man-handled by the toughs in the blue tracksuits. A microcosm, you might say, of the Chinese attitude to human rights: the weak, seeking only a platform for free expression, beating beaten down by the faceless strong. Silly arguments about sovereignty and trite comparisons with Israel aside, few could disagree that the Chinese have done many bad things in Tibet, for which they should rightly be condemned.

But in this way, and at this time? The Olympics have been effectively politicised before – remember Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s epoch-defining statement for black power on the podium in Mexico in 1968 – but they have also been ruined, and their purpose debased, by extensions of power-politicking into a realm where it does not belong. Did the American boycott of Moscow 1980, and the Soviet reprisal in Los Angeles in 1984, really make either side anymore morally pure? It entrenched antagonisms, exacerbated differences, and sunk into the muddied waters of everyday pettiness perhaps the only world forum that seeks, for a brief few weeks, to set common humanity apart from ideology.

This is not a romanticisation of the Olympics. Done well, it has an undeniable magic. This is because the modern Olympics was never intended to be just about sport. Its goal was “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.” Whether we bear this consciously in mind or not, it imbues the event. That’s why, for every sprinter, winning the Olympic Gold will always be a greater prize than winning at the World Athletics Championship. Thanks to its higher aims, the Olympic Games are special. And we all know it.

The Chinese regime can be cruel and repressive. But that does not mean all China is bad. There are many platforms in which to protest the wrong actions of the Chinese government, and these should be vigorously pursued. But can we not leave just one, this special one, to portray China’s goodness and the goodness of its people? And that goodness is there: in China’s incredible economic transformation, the hundreds of millions it has brought out of poverty, its social progress, its hard work, its creativity.

And don’t say to me, Berlin 1936. The Beijing Olympics is not just about showcasing a regime, but about celebrating a nation. All reports suggest feverish excitement within China for these games. This is the opportunity, long-awaited, for the Chinese people to have their moment in the sun, to show what a great and historic country they are. Let’s let them have it, put differences aside for a short month, and encourage the positive they have achieved.

This does not mean a whitewash. The Dalai Lama, no acolyte of China, makes the case powerfully: “the hosting of the Olympic games this year is a matter of great pride to the 1.2 billion Chinese people …we should never cause misunderstanding or do something that will hurt the Chinese people … it will be futile and not helpful to anyone if we do something that will create hatred in [their] minds.” This does not mean ignoring the crimes committed in Tibet, or by the Chinese government against its own people. It means leaving these disputes to another realm, and letting the Olympics be about something bigger.

I know some argue that China’s sensitivity to their global image at this time represents a unique opportunity the extract concessions from China on Tibet and other human rights issues. I disagree. This argument doesn’t seem to consider a world after Beijing 2008. When the closing ceremony wraps up, we still have to deal with China, and the importance of this relationship will only increase in the future. Any concessions secured from China today under duress will be made with resentment, leaving us with an angry and embarrassed partner, and concessions that are not built to last.

Social psychologists have long shown the difference in quality between an action made under fear of reprisal, and one made spontaneously. The former is weak and unreliable, the latter powerful. Threatening to spoil China’s coming out party, which it has spent years and billions preparing, will only produce the first kind of action. Showing China respect for its endeavour and achievements could create enough cooperation and gratitude to produce the second; a more genuine, more long-standing advancement in its domestic human rights.

If this sounds like pie in the sky, remember the effect of the boldly conciliatory attitude adopted by JFK in his speech to the American Univeristy in June 1963.

Let us reexamine our attitude towards the Soviet Union … and not see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side … As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture, in acts of courage.

By August, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed, unthinkable before Kennedy uttered these words. Khrushchev called it the “best speech by any American President since Roosevelt”.

Conciliation is often depicted as the policy of cowards and appeasers, and at times it is. But as Kennedy proved, in the right spirit and at the right time, it can be a more powerful tool than threats. Faced with a China desperate to show its best side to an ignorant world, I believe that now is one of these times.






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