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Which Comes First: Politics or Sport? The Sweet and Sour Chinese Olympics [ 2008.07.17 ]

At eight minutes past eight o’clock on the eighth day of the eighth month of two thousand and eight, the modern nation of China will take a great leap forward. That is if you are a global citizen preoccupied with the concept of competitive sport. If on the other hand you find there are more pressing matters within the world’s societies, then perhaps Beijing’s sporting spectacle forms a source of contention differing to the kind displayed by competing athletes. Whilst one cannot refute that a great nation such as China deserves every opportunity to host an Olympic Games, it is the manner in which, so far, they have conducted their preparations that is worthy of consideration. But is it fair to hi-jack the spirit of the Olympic Games for the sake of political leverage? Should the Chinese government be open to criticism simply because they offered to host the world’s premier athletic showpiece? Or should the Olympics be seen for what they are essentially supposed to represent, human endeavour and sporting accomplishment of the highest level?

For the first time since Moscow held the Games in 1980 an avowed anti-democratic country has been handed the right to stage an Olympic event, and it is no coincidence that this opportunity has fallen to the world’s ‘fastest growing economy’ (depending on which statistics are considered). Whilst the International Olympic Committee (IOC) struggles to maintain a guise of non-professionalism within their Games, there can be no denying that the Olympics are now as commercialised as any professional sporting event on the planet; arguably more so since almost every major sport is represented within the Games themselves, thus adding to the financial interests generated. So where better to stage a spectacle that has the ability to generate so much wealth for associated governments, corporations and big businessmen than in a setting ripe for the building of massive economic growth? Those more cynical may ask ‘Why focus on China economically as an Olympic host?’, and it is true that every host nation of recent decades has understood the economic benefits to be gained through hosting these events, but one must see that the timing for China to host the Olympics could not be better from a financial perspective.

The two main ways profiteers can get excited by an Olympics is firstly by the construction projects that the host city will invariably have to undertake and secondly, by the huge influx of pre, during, and post Games tourism that is generated. In some way the infrastructure built by governments leading up to an Olympics contributes greatly to the host cities permanent residents, for example airport terminals, sporting facilities, and expanded/improved rail links. The question must be asked though, after the two week event passes into the annals of sporting history, how often will the new facilities be utilised, and to what long term benefits for the citizens of the host city? A new rail link to an Olympic Village, where athletes are accommodated, fast becomes redundant with no athletes to utilise the service. And the cost of constructing a new velodrome may be considered necessary by the Government at the time, but how often will Beijing play host to future international cycling events? Basically Olympic Games bring construction booms to host cities, generating many short term jobs and associated industry income for those near the top of the pile, but surely a good deal of scrutiny is required by the public, the citizens of Beijing, when their Government is spending their money on building a swathe of sporting facilities. If one were to assume that a nation had perfect healthcare, perfect educational facilities, and no costly environmental issues, then surely building projects for a glorified sports carnival would be a fair expenditure of Government funds, but what of the opposite scenario?

In terms of tourism the benefits may be seen to be much longer lasting for the average worker within China’s hospitality and associated industries. Of course for two weeks Beijing, and by extension other destinations within China, can expect a healthy influx of tourist cash but more importantly the Olympics will see travellers make extended stays within China, perhaps travelling to coastal or other areas of natural beauty such as the Three Gorges region. Flowing on from this, if the Chinese tourism operators do themselves justice, tourists will return home telling friends and family of the exciting, culturally stimulating experience China gave them, leading others to visit and witness the ‘sleeping giant’ for themselves. So the associated benefits to tourism the Olympics will bring to China cannot be ignored, but then neither should the rights of the Chinese people.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that the Chinese Government is condoning the terrible actions of construction companies who are charged with redeveloping sections of Beijing’s neighbourhoods. Apparently hundreds of thousands of Beijing’s citizens who happened to live in areas deemed necessary for Olympic development have been forcibly removed from their homes, their houses simply demolished in front of their very eyes without any recourse and with inadequate compensation. All so Olympic visitors can be accommodated in a manner befitting a modern Games event. It is this very type of social issue that has lead to China being labelled at times, mainly by Western observers, as having an unfair notion of civil liberties and human rights. Indeed few if any developed nations fail to represent their poorest citizens by way of lacking strong legislative principles and effective courts of law. Neither in the build up to the Sydney or Athens Games, nor presumably in the build up to London 2012, were citizens of the hosting cities denied any access to social institutions to appeal and voice concerns regarding any aspect of Olympic preparations. As reported by Human Rights Watch in March of this year, “Chinese citizens lack any real property rights. When people present their cases to courts, judges are usually corrupted by party officials and developers. Sometimes homes will have already been destroyed by the time a judge makes a decision to even hear the case. There have been complaints of violent evictions by thugs or construction crews injuring or even killing occupants during a demolition.” For this very reason China has struggled to be viewed with much appreciation by Humanists from all walks of life who are concerned with how their fellow peoples of Earth are being treated by their respective governments. Add to this the inability for activists to speak out on behalf of the forced evictees and you have the stereotype of the Communist State rearing its ugly head all over again. For some the choice of speaking out against social injustice and going to prison or staying silent and watching your countrymen suffer greatly at the hand of dictatorial governors is not a hard one. That is why Non Government Organisations (NGO) like Amnesty International are constantly working hard for the betterment of individuals’ rights in nations like China, to offer as much protection from unjust prosecution as possible.

For those global citizens who believe that the rights of the individual are important, this trouble around evicted Beijing residents is a timely and somewhat ironic issue given as it only serves to highlight the problems China has in showing the world it is serious on addressing issues of social justice. Whether it be the argument regarding the legality of social networks such as Falun Gong, the large scale use of capital punishment, or the lack of a free press, many observers outside and indeed, many within, are disturbed by way the Chinese Government handles it’s domestic programs, but perhaps the greatest source of conflict leading up to the 2008 Olympics comes from the way China handles itself on an international level.

All great nations in the past and present have sought to exert their influence on others under the guises of imperialism, colonisation, and forced assimilation and China is no different. This is why in the eyes of the Chinese bureaucracy the perceived ‘occupation’ of Tibet is in fact merely a legitimate possession of Chinese territory. Certainly it is fair for China to argue that every major developed nation has in the past or present sought to obtain jurisdiction over geographical areas not originally under their possession. It is no coincidence either that the vast majority of wealthy states enjoy their status based at least in part on the ill gotten spoils of their former conquests. If China needed any more ammunition for arguing their right to administer Tibet they have only to look at the current world leader in hegemony the United States, and it’s long running ‘unofficial’ military program to more or less control a vast section of the Middle East. Surely any U.S. citizens who feel compelled to protest on behalf of Tibetans and their lack of sovereignty should first be addressing their own government on the very same issue for the people of Iraq. To attack the Chinese government for human rights abuses in Tibet whilst more or less ignoring the exact same occurrences in Iraq is hypocrisy of the highest calibre and international citizens would do well to remember that just because China is ‘more foreign’ to them in terms of culture and style of governance, they should not judge its actions any harsher than those of the U.S. or any other nation.

From a neutral stand point China does make an interesting example of a would be ‘Super Power’ since there is still a generation of Chinese people alive today who remember life at the hands of Japanese imperialists. Denying Tibetan peoples the right to self-determination smacks of the kind of imperialist tendencies that China suffered at the hands of Japan last century, nowhere more notably than in contemporary Manchuria. How quickly it seems the People’s Republic has forgotten its own difficult birth. Never the less, seeking to maintain control of Tibet is the type of foreign policy mirrored by governments the world over, both past and present.

A more recent development in world affairs has served to become another thorn in the side of China’s international standing, that being the human tragedy unfolding in the Darfur region of Sudan. Those who have paid less attention to world affairs recently may wonder what on Earth China has to do with a domestic conflict in an East-African nation, but a serious charge is being levelled at Beijing for implicitly supporting the alleged genocide activities of the Sudanese government on several of that nations ethnic groups. Why should China support such activities? Probably because there is money to be made in arms deals, as well as an opportunity to strengthen China’s sphere of political influence over developing nations. After all China purchases most of Sudan’s oil exports, and in 2007 President Hu Jintao visited Sudan and wrote off a multi-million dollar debt, replacing it with millions of dollars in interest free loans. So China is comfortable in dealing with an African government which, by United Nations figures, has caused the deaths of over 300,000 innocent ethnic minority citizens.

Further still the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently reported evidence of China breaking the United Nations arms embargo on the Darfur conflict by not only supplying military hardware after the embargo’s effective date, but also providing training in the use of fighter jets in the Darfur region. For selling armaments many nations are guilty, but for doing so behind the back of the United Nations after agreeing compliance with the embargo is scandalous. The powerful nations of the world will always perform underhand dealings to better their positions over the others so China is not alone in this regard, but unlike America which has forged difficult ties with many nations, China is starting out on the back foot along the winding road of diplomatic relations. Looking to assume greater authority in world events will always lead China to be viewed with greater suspicion than those already at the top such as the U.S. and Europe. There is no doubt as heirs to the ‘Super Power’ throne the world’s eyes are firmly fixed on the People’s Republic, especially by those who may perceive it as a present or future threat.
One must remember that the negative attention afforded the Beijing Olympic Games is not the fault of the sporting event, but rather a result of the great East-West cultural clash that is fast approaching. It should be hoped that if Washington, New York, or Los Angeles were to host this year’s Olympics then just as many protestations would be raised over the United State’s foreign policies around ambiguous empire building, in a parallel to China’s Tibetan dilemma. Further if anyone dared count the numbers of innocent human lives lost in nations past and present by regimes and dictatorships overtly and covertly propped up by the U.S. government than the Darfur conflict in relation to China may seem slightly less shocking.

To the athletes and their fans, the Beijing Olympics will hopefully be a party. A fun filled event of cultural exchange and increased human understanding centred on competitive athleticism. Those seeking to hijack the event for political gain should be made to realise that perhaps by allowing a trouble free event China may actively seek to gain the world’s trust irrespective of pressure from foreign governments and NGO’s. After all, disrupting the games will only serve to irritate the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, and it will do little to promote critical self-reflection. As change can only come from within, winning over the minds of the leaders in Beijing should be the goal of those seeking a world containing an open, friendly, and cooperative China.

Columnist, Bernard Laidlaw

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