People who live in glass houses shouldn't stage an Olympic protest

Though a little late in the game, calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics can still be heard. For instance, President Bush and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev plan to attend the August 8 opening ceremonies. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy may be a no-show unless Chinese authorities negotiate with Tibetan leaders.

Since the March 10th uprising in Tibet, Chinese security forces have terrorized Tibetans by not only firing upon, but “disappearing” protesters. They also occupied monasteries and villages.

Meanwhile, 194 American rabbis recently signed a letter protesting China’s support for Sudan and its brutal oppression of Darfur. Besides investing billions of dollars to help prop up the brutal Khartoum regime, China has sold it assault rifles and other weapons.

“Insecurity,” reports Foreign Policy in Focus’s John Feffer, “which poses the greatest threat to civilians and humanitarians in Darfur, derives directly from the arrogant defiance that Beijing has for years encouraged in Khartoum’s genocidaires.”

If there were such a thing as the Human Rights Abuse Olympics, these two issues would have qualified to represent China.

Beijing also detains hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens, such as political activists, for “reeducation,” also known as forced labor camps. Also, in 2007, 470 Chinese were officially executed — one shudders at the thought of the unofficial total.

Yet, in March, the US State Department removed China from its list of worst human rights violators. A wink and a nod to one of our major creditors, it also sought to defuse criticism of President Bush’s appearance at the opening ceremonies.

But, according to the Christian Science Monitor, Reporters Without Borders termed this a “major setback.” Amnesty International said it’s “actually encouraging the Chinese authorities to continue the practices they are undertaking.”

Still, the thought of the US boycotting or protesting the Beijing Olympics strikes many as hypocritical. At, Gene Wojciechowski explains: “The U.S. borrows money from China. The U.S. buys China’s goods. But now that the Beijing Games are here, we become the world’s conscience? That argument had a few more teeth before evidence of torture emerged from Guantanamo Bay.” Not to mention Iraq.

In other words, despite the severity of China’s transgressions, the US remains in contention to win at least as much gold as China at said Human Rights Abuse Olympics. Should a tiebreaker be required, the benefit of the doubt should go to the host country.

Under those conditions, the US must hold its fire. Still, the odd American athlete with a social consciousness might be tempted to stage a protest. Recently, regarding China’s human rights issues, NBA star Lebron James said, ”I’m not going on a podium or nothing like that.” Perhaps, however, he should consider refraining from showing up China and, instead, beam his protest back at the US.

That’s the path that American sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos took at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. They began by wearing patches for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, established by black power sociologist Harry Edwards. OPHR’s goal was to roll back apartheid in South Africa and racism in the US.

For those too young to remember, the elegant Smith and the powerfully built (for those halcyon ante-steroid days anyway) Carlos won the 200-meter gold and bronze respectively. They mounted the victory stand without shoes to protest poverty in the United States. Also, Carlos wore beads to protest lynching and Smith a black scarf as a symbol of black pride. During the playing of the national anthem, they each raised a black-gloved fist.

For his article, titled “Carlos still has a conscience, 40 years after Mexico City,” Wojciechowski questioned Carlos about China. “We are being hypocritical when we talk about someone else’s civil rights issues,” was the reply. (Very likely, he emphasized “are” and it was lost in translation by the Web editor.) “But an injustice is an injustice.”

Actually, Carlos and Smith’s act of defiance is the perfect illustration of all the considerations that need to be weighed before protesting or boycotting the Olympics. Ten days prior to the ’68 games, students staged a demonstration in a plaza in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco district. The culmination of months of strikes against the authoritarian ruling party, it incorporated a number of causes — from protesting violent police suppression of an earlier protest to calls for freedom for political prisoners.

Military snipers, acting as provocateurs, shot from nearby apartment buildings. Army forces and police on the ground turned their response into a cover under which they killed two to three hundred students and onlookers in the plaza. The army was later suspected of disposing of bodies by dropping some from helicopters into the Gulf of Mexico.

The International Olympic Committee considered, but quickly discarded, the idea of calling off the Olympics in the wake of the Tlatelolco Massacre, sometimes referred to as Mexico’s Tiananmen Square.

Imagine, though, if China’s day of infamy had gone down 10 days before its Olympics. The pressure on the US Olympic Committee to withdraw from the games would have been immense.

Hearkening back to Mexico City, if only because Carlos and Smith were his heroes, the author has no desire to indulge in revisionist history of their courageous act. Especially in light of their subsequent expulsion from the Olympic Village.

But the Tlatelolco Massacre, if only because of its proximity in time to the Olympics, cried out to be addressed as much as poverty and racism in the US (not to mention Vietnam). If ever there were an Olympics in which protesting the host country was called for, it was Mexico City in 1968.

Today, citizens of other nations are not about to let us lecture them on human rights. Come to think of it, the old adage “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” would fit neatly inside a thought balloon shaped like the United States.

Restoring our moral authority may take a generation. But should the next administration decide to make Darfur a priority, we can begin to rebuild our credibility like a bad credit rating. Freeing Guantanamo’s prisoners and providing them with health and psychiatric care for life would win us serious points too. But nothing would boost our sagging ratings like diminishing our military presence around the world, starting with Iraq.

9 replies »

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  2. A compelling argument, Russ. Thanks for taking the time to lay it out so thoroughly.

  3. Thanks for this, Russ. I’ve been contemplating our hypocrisy on this matter. You’ve crystallized much of what I’ve been muddling about. Well done.

  4. re:
    >>>Also, in 2007, 470 Chinese were officially executed — one shudders at the thought
    >>>of the unofficial total

    There are a lot of disgruntled Chinese exiles who claim that the real number of executions is much higher. They also claim that China has far more people behind bars that it wants to admit.

    Maybe these exiles are right.

    But I’d like to point out a couple of things. First of all, if you follow the mindset of today’s Chinese leadership, you’ll note that they really have little reason to lie about things like their execution stats, or number of prisoners.

    The fact is, China’s leadership has shown again and again that it absolutely doesn’t giving a flying f*ck what the world thinks about its policies. China’s leadership is also extremely hostile to criticism from other nations, particularly from the West.

    Also, note that disgruntled exiles aren’t always the most reliable source for info. In many cases, these are people who don’t even live in the nation they’re criticizing (and they haven’t lived there for decades, in some cases).

    In fact, it was an over-reliance on believing tales spun by exiles that was at least in part responsible for the U.S. being so monumentally misinformed about the real state of Iraq, before it invaded that nation.

    Last, but not least: let’s remember one thing. The U.S. invaded Iraq basically to grab its oil and we now have the blood of over a million Iraq civilians on our hands. We simply have no leg to stand on to criticize other nations now, whether we want to accept this or not.

  5. Thanks for pointing that out, Marc.

    Meanwhile, I neglected to point out that the earthquake is winning China sympathy. Nobody’s gonna have the heart to boycott or protest under these conditions.

    Sad to say, but Chinese leadership is probably thanking its lucky stars that the earthquake came along close to the Olympics and will probably deflect attention from their human rights issues

  6. I disagree with Marc about why we invaded Iraq. it seems to me that the Iraq invasion was a way to get ourselves firmly entrenched right next to Iran. If oil were the reason, I would expect oil prices to have at least stabilized here in the US. Instead we have rampant speculation causing huge spikes in that market. The current administration has stanced themselves many times against Iran, and the congress is right there with them.
    Nevertheless, we do have that blood on our hands, and we do not have a even a toe to stand on concerning our collective human rights issues. I’m not sure how long we’ve been this way, but in my opinion, the USA is one of the worst of the worst when it comes to human rights offenses.

  7. Jon: Your comments are apt enough, save for one thing: they assume competence on the part of the administration. In fact, there is no relationship at all between intent and results because they’re so inept.

  8. I wonder sometimes though, is that ineptitude just an act? GW is one guy, but there’s almost 500 guys up there. Is the collective wisdom of our government that shallow?
    Argh, why did I ask that? I look around and I know the answer is “yes”.

  9. I hear a lot of right-wingers who claim that “the Iraq War couldn’t have been about oil because oil prices are still so high.”

    But this logic doesn’t hold water.

    Just because oil prices haven’t gone down doesn’t mean that the U.S. didn’t invade Iraq for its oil.

    All it means is that the Bush team even screwed up that aspect of this fiasco of a war.

    I’ve read (I believe it was noted by Chalmers Johnson) that a hidden aspect of the Iraq War (which has been pretty much ignored by the MSM) has been the spectacular success of the insurgents in sabotaging Iraq’s oil industry.

    I’d suspect this will continue for many years. It’s impossible to guard thousands of miles of oil pipelines across vast tracts of desert.

    It was Noam Chomsky who noted that for all of America’s lofty talk of “freedom” and “democracy,” the average Iraqi on the street knows damn well we invaded their nation for oil.