Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Moral Medals

Apr 1, 2008

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing have become as much about politics as athletics. The Chinese government views the Games as a chance to showcase its long jump from famine and poverty to global growth engine. But media coverage of the big event has attracted and accelerated international activism against China's poor record on human rights.

Attention has focused recently on the widespread protests over China's control of Tibet. Violence erupted in the Tibetan capital on March 10, the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising during which the Dalai Lama and his entourage fled the country and established a government in exile at Dharamsala in northern India. The Chinese government worked to contain the demonstrations by blocking roads to Lhasa, but unrest also sparked up in the countryside and quickly spread to Chengdu and other areas in China with Tibetan communities. Long a strategic high ground and disputed territory, Tibet had been independent for decades before Chinese communist troops invaded in 1950.

Quoting "unconfirmed sources," the Dalai Lama's exile government sent out a press release saying that Chinese armed police had killed "around 100 Tibetans and injured many others for taking part in peaceful demonstrations."

Freedom for Tibet has long been a cause célèbre among movie stars and peace advocates, and the U.S. Congress got into the game last year when it awarded the Dalai Lama a gold medal for his "many enduring and outstanding contributions to peace, non-violence, human rights and religious understanding."

In addition to targeting the Chinese government, activists are also pressuring Olympic sponsors to respond to ethical questions surrounding the hundreds of millions of dollars they have invested in the Summer Games. The Wall Street Journal reported that companies including Lenovo, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Volkswagen paid as much as $120 million to sponsor the Beijing Olympics, which helps cover the approximately $2.1 billion operating cost of the Games.

The sponsors have largely distanced themselves from political issues such as the Tibet protests. Company executives have sought to protect their brands while maintaining the appearance of faith in the Chinese government. McDonald's told the Wall Street Journal that political issues should be resolved by governments and international bodies. Lenovo, China's only domestic top-tier Olympic sponsor, commented that the "situation involves a longstanding dispute and political forces beyond the control of Olympic sponsors, and it would exist even in the absence of the Olympic Games."

Olympic politicking isn't new. Since their modern inception in the late 19th century, the Games have repeatedly been a focal point of international politics. In 1936, international outrage exploded as Nazi Germany played host to the Olympics, and boycott movements emerged all around the world. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted U.S. President Jimmy Carter to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow. In 1984, the Soviet Union returned the favor by refusing to attend the Los Angeles Olympics, citing "anti-Soviet hysteria" in the United States.

This time around the new twist is private actors applying public pressure, in a globalized media environment. China was hoping to springboard off the Games to further international prominence, but it also opened itself up to a tempting opportunism to sway its foreign policy.

In March 2007, actress and United Nations good-will ambassador Mia Farrow published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where she called the Beijing Olympics the "Genocide Games," due to China's support for the Sudanese government, which had been enabling ethnic killing in Sudan's western Darfur region since 2003. Ms. Farrow exhorted Steven Spielberg, an artistic advisor for the Olympics, to exert pressure on China, warning that he could "go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games," in reference to the famous filmmaker of Nazi Olympic propaganda.

Spielberg acquiesced and sent a letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao, who soon dispatched a senior diplomat to Sudan to urge the Sudanese to allow a UN peacekeeping force into Darfur. Four months later, the government in Khartoum conceded. As the New York Times put it, this was "a classic study of how a pressure campaign, aimed to strike Beijing in a vulnerable spot at a vulnerable time, could accomplish what years of diplomacy could not."

Although Darfur has long been the sharpest thorn in China's side, it is the Tibet issue that most threatens to turn China's coming-out party into a big China bash. Most countries have ruled out a total boycott of the Games, including the United States and France, but others have decided to use the event as leverage to force Beijing to halt the current violence and address the Tibetan autonomy question. Austria, Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom have all discussed a boycott of the opening ceremony, as the Christian Science Monitor reports.

Spielberg withdrew from his Olympic role earlier this year over the Darfur issue, and Beijing responded by attacking his character and Olympic spirit. But it may be dawning on China that ignoring Mr. Spielberg's message could be worse than upsetting its friends in Sudan, from which it gets 10 percent of its oil.

"[T]he Chinese, as they become a great power, are realizing that foreign policy is not simply about economics, but about world leadership. There is a gradual evolution as they step into that role," Andrew S. Natsios, a Georgetown University professor and former presidential envoy on Darfur, recently told the Los Angeles Times. The Chinese have been caught off guard by international criticism not because the Olympics are becoming increasingly politicized, but because this is China's first time in the spotlight as a global power.

That China is gradually growing into its status as a major power was evidenced in early March when again a senior foreign ministry official traveled to Sudan to convince its government to bow to international pressures. In a rare public appearance for a Chinese diplomat, Liu Guijin spoke to the press concerning his country's activities, stating that China is using its relationship with the Sudanese government "to exert leverage." For a country not accustomed to openly admitting its use of leverage, this is a significant recognition of China's influence as a major power.

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