Tibet, China, and the Olympics

Tibet FlagLately, I haven’t been able to turn on the news without hearing something about Tibet, China, and the Olympics. It seems that with the Olympics fast approaching, many activist groups are using this opportunity to shine a light on China’s horrible record on human rights, Tibet, and China’s relationship with Sudan. This attention has only been amplified by the recent crackdown by China in Tibet that led to the death of 20 to 100 people, depending on which news agency you ask.

Yesterday, protesters in Paris disrupted the torch relay, forcing officials to extinguish the torch five times. Similar incidents happened when they lit the Olympic torch in Greece and when the torch was run through London. There’s talk in the US of boycotting the opening ceremonies, Germany is talking about boycotting the whole event, and many groups are calling for the general populace and for athletes to boycott the event altogether.

All of this is designed to “shame” China about their human rights record, causing them so much embarrassment that they change their ways. I think that view shows a total lack of understanding about the Chinese government and history.

None of this is going to get them to change their ways for two reasons. For starters, China has had a long policy of staying out of people’s affairs. They stay out of other people’s business because they don’t want anyone getting into theirs. China doesn’t think it’s anyone’s place to tell others how to live their lives and therefore takes great offense when people tell them what to do. Their sense of national pride is at stake, and they won’t bow to foreign pressure. Chinese history is filled with western interference, and the Chinese still harbor a lot of resentment about their past with the West. Issues like Tibet and Taiwan are seen through the prism of historical events like the Opium Wars. Any talk of what “China must do” is only going to increase their resistance and harden their position.

Secondly, the general population of China isn’t clued into any of this. Most people there don’t get the news or read what’s going on. They just listen to the Chinese national media and that’s that. China filters out websites the government doesn’t like, so most people just don’t know and really don’t care as they just try to live and get by.

All the boycotts and protests in the world won’t change China’s position. China entered the world through engagement in the 1970s and will only change through further engagement. The best thing that can be done is that people go, talk, and get the Chinese people involved, because if there’s both internal and external pressure, there might be some change.

But if the Olympics are a disaster and China views this as the West shaming them and making them lose face, they will only become more resistant to working with us on a lot of other issues. We can’t let that happen. China is too important—we need them on big, global issues like climate change, Darfur, and Iran. They matter and they know it. Yes, their human rights record is awful and I don’t support any of their actions, but looking at Chinese history will show you how they’ll act now. We should work with them on resolving these issues, but boycotting the Olympics, an event the Chinese see as their coming-out party, isn’t going to get them to do that.

Don’t boycott the Olympics. Go to China, see as much as you can there, and maybe spread some ideas in the process. That’s how you’ll change China. From the bottom up.

Ready to go to China? Check out my guide to China travel for help planning your trip.

  1. deanna

    i just have to say that for the first time ever, i actually agree with you.
    i think that i just feel this way because i’ve always been a big fan of the olympics and to be honest, it’s as simple as the fact that i don’t think anything should interfere with it. people will take any chance they can get to take advantage of a situation and get publicity for it. so great, you have an opinion of china.. SO WHAT.. think of a better way of getting your point across.. you’re right, matt, NOTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE.. at least not right now anyway.
    so i guess what i’m saying is.. let it be. leave it alone. i mean, it’s the olympics.. it’s a POSITIVE thing.. let’s just keep our noses in our own business and focus on our own country. i’m just angry that they are using the olympics as motivation to get their point across.

  2. backpakker

    In a way, what you are saying is right..and thanks for dropping in at backpakker ..and boy, am I glad you did..I write and I travel too , but mainly in India ..to remote places though Ive been abroad as well..your blog is quite an inspiration

  3. Dave and Adrienne

    I don’t agree with your second reason. That may have been true even 10 years ago. Nowadays, despite the fact that Google is even controlled by the Chinese government, there are enough Chinese who can find out this information through other websites and forums to know what the heck is going on. The real second reason is that some Chinese believe that Taiwanese and Tibetans are their people–Chinese. Therefore, they don’t like it when the West tells them what to do about Tibet and/or Taiwan. I’ve spoke with many pro-Chinese students at UMass and have engaged in many debates over this issue. They really believe that these nations belong to China and that they are disobeying its government by trying to defend their independence.

  4. Shantanu

    I think I agree with you. I think oppressed people need to get support everywhere, but no one country can claim to be clean. I hope the Olympics are a success.

  5. stevo

    I agree.

    Why didn’t people protest in Australia over the treatment of the aboriginals? Will they protest during the London Olympics torch relay over former British imperialism?

    Every country has skeletons in the closet. Tibet is lucky to have a charismatic spokesperson and ill-informed college students.