I do not know to what extent the French consumer depends on goods made in China or how the EU economy is tied into the Chinese economy. Therefore, my charges of hypocrisy do not extend to European protests of the Olympic torch. However, U.S. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have called for boycotting the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Sports Radio talk show host Dan Patrick has raised questions about China’s fitness to host the Olympics. U.S. citizens of many stripes have protested the Olympic torch due to China’s human rights record and oppression of Tibet.
Practical Ways to Protest China’s Record
I want to make it very clear. I too am troubled by China’s labor standards, ecological record, oppression of Tibet, threats toward Taiwan and general modus operandi as a nation-state. I simply also think that an honest appraisal of the items in my home suggests that I buy a lot of things made in China. I could rant and rave about “Free Tibet!”, but the fact is my consumption patterns offer more support to China’s system than any protests could ever undermine. My guess is that the same is true for many of the Olympic torch protesters as well.
The Olympic Torch protests might be harnessed in positive directions if they involve U.S. consumers, myself included, taking the time to know more about where and how the goods U.S. citizens buy are made. I am sure China wants the Olympics to go well and the protests may have embarrassed China to a degree, but the threat of product boycotts standing behind calls for more humane working conditions will be more effective than arguing about a torch. If the U.S. links showing China the money to China showing a more progressive approach to human rights, some progress might result.
Chicken Hawk Torch Rattling
What will not make much of a difference to China is some half hearted half-boycott of the Olympics. I understand Clinton and Obama trying to outflank each other for the remaining human rights voters, but the U.S. skipping the opening ceremonies is a boycott in name only. In 1980, Jimmy carter boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The move was controversial and not popular in many circles. It was a move that did hurt the Soviet economy. The U.S. skipping a ceremony in Beijing does not stop any U.S. currency from flowing into the Chinese economy. Aside from having a few fewer flags being hoisted and a few fewer athletes ducking and covering due to dove droppings, such a boycott is a toothless ploy.
It is sadly beneath Obama or Clinton. One of my major critiques of George W. Bush is that he has never asked the U.S. to sacrifice in response to 9/11 by buying less fuel or somehow modernizing our vehicle fleet. Obama and Clinton have not asked the U.S. to buy fewer Chinese goods due to the treatment of Tibet or Chinese workers. In fact, I will almost guarantee that either will renew Most Favored Nation status for China if elected President. In Hillary’s case, I can recall Bill Clinton railing against George H.W. Bush over China and the Tienanmen Square massacre during the 1992 election. As President, Bill Clinton quickly shifted from idealist to pragmatist by renewing MNF status for a country with over 1 billion potential consumers of U.S. products.
Carrot and Stick Diplomacy or Constructive Engagement
Love or hate Al Gore, it is obvious that he does care about ecological issues. Gore has tried to consult with the Chinese government and gradually improve their ecological performance. A similar model might be applied to Tibet or Chinese working conditions. Instead of threatening meaningless boycotts, U.S. leaders could perhaps try to proceed in negotiations with China that incrementally link improvements in China’s posture toward labor and Tibet with improved perception and trade arrangements with the U.S. The U.S. could use the Olympics as actual leverage for better performance in China. U.S. consumers could also walk down that road without the leadership of politicians. Instead, I fear that many in the U.S. will push for purely symbolic Olympic posturing in order to feel better while simultaneously funding China’s economy with every purchase.