Resist urge to protest with Olympic boycott

The Beijing summer Olympics are more than four months away, but they’ll generate plenty of buzz in Seattle and San Francisco next week — buzz that will have nothing to do with sports and everything to do with morality.

The Olympic torch is scheduled to be carried through San Francisco on April 9, and the city is preparing for massive protests. Two days later, the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whose followers back home have had recent protests put down violently by Chinese troops, will arrive in Seattle for five days of events organized by a group called Seeds of Compassion.

The International Olympic Committee’s controversial decision to award the 2008 Games to Beijing posed a dilemma for the West, as does the West’s enormous and growing economic dependence on China. Does engaging China and its brutal, authoritarian regime help or hinder the prospects of its people to escape persecution?

The consensus view, that isolating China would be worse, probably is driven more by economic considerations than moral ones. Without a strong trade relationship with the world’s most populous nation, our own financial fortunes would suffer greatly. China is an enormous export market for our state alone (Boeing sells a whole lot of airplanes there), which translates into jobs. The big-box stores that save Americans so much money would have virtually empty shelves if not for Chinese imports. Plus, the deficit spending our federal government so depends on wouldn’t be possible without the Chinese government buying U.S. Treasury securities.

Putting China on the world stage as an Olympic host, it was hoped by many, would help draw it more toward the global mainstream, building upon the free-market expansion the communist regime has embraced. But the recent use of force against monks rallying for Tibetan independence has instead conjured memories of the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. China’s support for the genocidal regime in Sudan continues, too.

China’s leaders, it seems, are sending a message that human rights will not be part of any progress the Games inspire within its borders. An understandable reaction is to consider an Olympic boycott, an idea that isn’t getting much traction but will no doubt be debated in the coming days.

The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was counterproductive, producing a hardship on the athletes but none of its intended results. The Soviet bloc’s tit-for-tat boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games magnified the error. Many experts say a boycott of the Beijing Games could spark an even more severe backlash against Tibetan protesters.

The better course is to use the Games’ international stage as a bully pulpit for calling global attention to China’s brutal suppression of its own people. The media will also have ample opportunity to showcase China’s growing environmental degradation, increasing global pressure on the government to clean up its act.

China is much too big and powerful to be pushed effectively. The West must exert influence where it can, though, and the Olympics could well provide such an opportunity — as long as we’re there for them.

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