This past Saturday, the New Haven Green witnessed a scene that has become all too common: two rallies at loggerheads over the Beijing Olympics, both making overblown claims and neither willing to listen to the other’s perspective. The anti-Olympics rally fell victim to extreme viewpoints and name-calling, while the pro-Olympics rally missed the point altogether.
Those demonstrating in favor of the Beijing Olympics were offended by the fact that many activists have used this Olympic year to highlight the human-rights abuses facilitated by the Chinese government. Pro-Olympic demonstrators and commentators have criticized those who bring up China’s dubious record, saying that the Olympics are only a sporting event and that politics should be kept out of the Games. Some have called those who use the Olympic spotlight to criticize the Chinese government’s policies “anti-China.”
These arguments are bogus. First, the Olympic Games are a huge international event, and, as such, they are a lightning rod for debate. Second, there is a long history of politics in the Olympics and other sporting events (Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe et al). Third, “being non-political” is itself a political stance, a stance that gives tacit support to the status quo. Perhaps when pro-Beijing Olympics demonstrators say “non-political” they mean “non-controversial.” That’s certainly a political stance, but it still cannot be justified on its own merits.
Criticizing all anti-Olympics demonstrators as “anti-China” still misses the point. Most of those demonstrating for human rights in China have the best interests of the Chinese nation at heart. It misses the point to identify which demonstrators actually are anti-China, because important questions remain regardless. Questions still remain about Chinese guns and money aiding genocide in Darfur and unrest in Zimbabwe, and Chinese support for military dictatorships like that in Burma/Myanmar. Questions remain about harsh police and legal tactics in China, such as detention without a warrant, unfair trials, corruption, favoritism and overuse of the death penalty. And questions still remain about the treatment of religious minorities who cannot practice openly, about the detention of peaceful dissidents, about the failure to compensate those who are forced off their land to make way for industry and about the harassment of lawyers who try to defend these groups.
The most obvious criticism of the Beijing Olympics is that the Chinese government has broken its promises. When the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Games to Beijing, the Chinese government promised to improve human-rights conditions in several respects. Many of these promises have been broken. The “Re-education through Labor” policy, in which violators are sent to forced labor camps, is now applied not only to dissidents but also to citizens who operate taxis or shops without a license. Beatings and torture by the police continue, despite promises that such brutality would end.
Despite these valid criticisms, many of the anti-Olympics demonstrators on Saturday went much further. The operative word at the Falun Gong-organized rally was “regime,” not “government,” when referring to the power structure in China. The rhetoric went downhill from there. Not stopping at “cruel,” speakers went on to call the Chinese government “evil,” and the whopper “evil Communistic regime” came up from time to time. Another common theme was to compare the 2008 Olympics to the “Nazi Olympics” of 1936. Then one speaker, John Kusumi of the China Support Network, threw in the kitchen sink. He spoke of an “interim Chinese government,” a kind of shadow government operated by veterans of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, whose very existence is essentially a request for “regime change.”
At first, the Yale Amnesty International Club was a participant in the anti-Olympic rally. We were encouraged by early speakers who questioned the U.S. government’s human-rights record as well as that of China, but we were discouraged by more and more extreme views, culminating in Kusumi’s remarks. Simultaneously learning that our speaker’s slot had been cancelled due to time constraints and that the rally tacitly supported regime change, we revoked our support and left immediately. Amnesty International does not advocate regime change, and we will not support those who cut off dialogue by calling their ideological opponents “evil.” It is rarely productive, if ever, to take positions so dogmatic that they keep you from making compromises.
Asking hard questions of the Chinese government will yield progress. Despite the description of “evil” by many hard-line anti-Communists, the Chinese Communist Party has some reform-minded members who want to improve the rule of law. There are those in China’s government who will heed sober criticism of their country’s foreign policy, especially when it comes from an international perspective (and not, say, the U.S. Department of State). In other words, calling a government “evil” is hardly a way to get opponents to listen, and it is perfectly reasonable for pro-Olympics demonstrators to suspect that the more extremist activists want to bring down the Chinese government. Activists who take a measured approach, whose protests are loud but whose words are respectful, have the greatest chance of making a difference. While there are valid criticisms of every country’s human-rights record, the hawks who suggest regime change give activists a bad name.
Edwin Everhart is a junior in Saybrook College. He is writing on behalf of the Amnesty International Club at Yale.