Boycotting Olympics won't change anything

Business Times - 11 Apr 2008


DEMOCRATIC Senator Hillary Clinton, who is hoping to occupy the White House next year, is trying now to win the votes of blue-collar workers in her party's presidential primary in Pennsylvania. And since many of these voters have lost their manufacturing jobs after American companies had decided to relocate their factories to China, Mrs Clinton decided that a bit of China bashing could help her win some brownie points with these voters as she competes with another presidential contender, Senator Barack Obama. So the former first lady is now calling on the current occupant of the White House to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games.

'The violent clashes in Tibet and the failure of the Chinese government to use its full leverage with Sudan to stop the genocide in Darfur are opportunities for presidential leadership,' Mrs Clinton said in a statement, suggesting that 'these events underscore why I believe the Bush administration has been wrong to downplay human rights in its policy towards China'.

Mrs Clinton is just the latest in a growing number of American and European politicians and public figures who want to 'punish' China for its alleged human rights transgressions by calling for a partial or complete boycott of Beijing's Olympics. And in a way, Mrs Clinton's proposal demonstrates why such ideas, ranging from the call for keeping US athletes at home to the demand that President George W Bush not attend the opening ceremonies in Beijing are not only hypocritical, but are also self-defeating since they won't have any effect on Chinese policies and if anything, could harm US interests.

First, it should be recalled that it was president Bill Clinton - when he was not answering those 3am phone calls - who had taken the steps, including normalising US trade relationships with China and allowing it to join the World Trade Organization that helped establish the existing foundation for the Sino-American relationship.

The policy - backed by a bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill, by American corporations, and the members of the chattering class - created the conditions for the rise of China as a global economic power that is flooding the US with cheap products while financing its huge current-account deficit, enabling American companies to expand their operations abroad and its consumers to go on a never-ending shopping spree.

This historic transformation in the Sino-American relationship was taking place at a time when Bill and Hillary Clinton and the rest of the American political and economic elite had access to information about China's policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, its ties with the military regime in Myanmar and its search for energy sources in Africa and elsewhere. But both the White House and Congress decided that promoting US economic interests should take priority over concerns over Chinese human rights policies.

And now when the great American shopping spree is finally coming to an end, Hillary isn't suggesting that Washington 'punish' China by denying its sovereign wealth funds the opportunity to invest in struggling US financial institutions (who contribute to her campaign) or to stop selling cheap products to Americans (whose votes she needs). Mrs Clinton knows that an economic war between America and China would ensure that the current recession could turn into a depression. It would also devastate the Chinese economy but not to such an extent that it would force Beijing to provide political autonomy to Tibet or end its global search for energy.

And if dropping an economic nuclear bomb on China would not bring about changes in Chinese policies, does Mrs Clinton and others believe that an empty gesture like boycotting the Olympics' opening ceremony would make a difference? They know that it won't. But it supposedly would make Americans 'feel good' that they are 'doing something' about Tibet, Darfur and Myanmar.

The problem with this feel-good technique is that many of the Americans who are so concerned about the war in Darfur and the Chinese policies in Tibet have been directly or indirectly responsible - like Hillary Clinton who authorised the decision to go to war in Iraq and backed the Patriot Act - for numerous human rights transgressions that have been committed in the name of the 'war on terrorism'.

One can only imagine the reactions in Congress and the media if foreigners would have boycotted an Olympic-like event in the US to 'punish' it for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Moreover, Mrs Clinton and other Americans also expect China to continue working with the US on a multitude of policy issues around the world, including North Korea and Iran while they continue leading the American team in playing their latest morality game.

After eight years of a costly and futile US-led ideological crusade, one expected more from a presidential contender who is promising 'change' in Washington.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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