Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Olympic Flame-Out

Although I find it distasteful, I have to admit that for once I agree with the Chinese government on something: the raucous demonstrations against the Olympic torch relay are despicable. I don't, however, believe that for the same reason the Chinese do.

What is it, exactly, that the protesters hope to accomplish with these actions? Call attention to Chinese actions in Tibet? I think the world is already pretty well aware of this. Condemn the relative lack of personal freedom in China? Chances are that most Chinese (at least, those who are better educated and live in the well-developed coastal regions and large cities) don't see it the same way.

I have no problem with organized protests...sometimes they're the only way to call attention to injustices or problems. But for a protest to be effective, it's got to be able to accomplish its purpose, and I don't think that protests that target China's hosting of the Summer Olympics are going to accomplish what the protesters want. At best, they'll accomplish nothing. At worst, they'll backfire and cause worse problems down the road.

Protests work when they have some element of leverage over the targeted agency (government, company, etc). One element of leverage is popular opinion. In a democracy, the government generally takes protests into account and adjusts its policies based on the popular will (assuming that the protests are widespread enough and the expressed grievances have sufficient foundation in fact).

Now, consider that the Chinese government maintains a near-total monopoly on news entering the country. Television and radio news is carefully monitored and supervised by the government, and you can read a very good article about the so-called Great Firewall of China, which filters out information the government doesn't want the average Chinese to know, in this article from Atlantic Monthly. Consider a few examples of what the average Chinese is allowed to know about a few international incidents:

Concerning Tibet, the average Chinese knows that Tibet is a paradise that owes all its development and advancement to China, that the Dalai Lama is a monster in human form, that the ungrateful Tibetans are attacking Chinese for no reason. There is no mention or acknowledgment of the legitimate grievances of the Tibetans...only of the righteous indignation of the aggrieved Chinese.

A few years ago, a Chinese fighter collided with an American reconnaissance aircraft over international waters while doing some fairly aggressive maneuvers to intimidate it and force it away from the Chinese mainland. The Chinese plane was lost and pilot killed, and the badly-damaged American aircraft made an emergency landing at an airfield on Hainan Island. What did the Chinese people learn from their government? That a large, four-engined, propeller-driven aircraft flown by a crazily aggressive American spy had recklessly rammed a heroic Chinese jet fighter stalwartly defending his homeland.

As for the Olympics, the Chinese government position is that the Dalai Lama and other evil people are trying to embarrass China and deny it the opportunity to showcase its "harmonious society" and economic achievements by attacking the Olympic ideal.

These examples illustrate how the Chinese government, with it's monopoly on information, is able to spin world events to present only one side of the argument. Without access to all sides of the issue, the Chinese population knows only what it's being told...and it's being presented with a very slanted picture of events.

My point is this: protests targeting the Olympics are counterproductive. The only ones being hurt are the people carrying the Olympic torch, and the athletes who may end up being deprived of the opportunity to compete in the games. The protests only convince the average Chinese citizen to swell up in righteous indignation and feed the paranoia of ultranationalists.

How do we influence the Chinese government to change its policies? I don't know. But I do know how not to do it...by shameful and counterproductive demonstrations targeting the Olympic flame relay.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



KKTSews said...

I can think of one way to influence the Chinese---stop our rampant buy-buy-buy mentality which drives our huge economic dependence on China. Of course, that won't happen, because Americans are as dependent on acquiring "stuff" as your average heroin addict is on getting a hit.

Drive down a suburban street in a region of the country where garages are the norm and you will see many or most houses cannot park their TWO cars in their garage because it is so filled with STUFF. I'm making a gross estimate here, but I'd wager 90% of that STUFF is manufactured in China. Hence we have a huge trade imbalance and they have had a raging economy for 15 years. Granted, the average Chinese now probably has a better life because of it, relatively.

But as you say, you have to have leverage to effectively influence a government. I don't think we have much leverage with them, other than the economic. And that would require Americans to (shudder) sacrifice. Won't happen.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

Nothing is sacred and you can't change how other countries rule themselves. When you force a government style on a country that doesn't want it...it tends to fail miserably. As we will eventually see in Iraq.

Amanda said...

*sigh* With the constant coverage of the Tibet/China issue, the only feeling I get is that nobody wants to do anything to annoy China. The world leaders are so careful in their choice of words when it comes to this issue....as if not to offend too much. So.....on the one hand I agree with you, but on the other hand, if these protesters didn't protest, there would be nobody saying anything honest about whats going on.

craziequeen said...

We had the news on and there was footage of the protests, attacking the flame carrier, police everywhere....

'Is that London?' I asked MB in disbelief....he nodded, equally stunned....

Of course, when the regular Jo was interviewed on the street in China, they have heard nothing about the protests and think everyone wishes them well with the Olympics.

I am confused - everyone outside China knows about the Tibet situation and no one in China knows (except the govt, of course!), so who who were the protestors trying to get their message across to?

Oh, and the news this morning said the Olympic Committee are debating getting rid of the flame thing...


Jean-Luc Picard said...

By hosting the Olympics, the protesters are forcing maximum embarrasment on the Chinese.

I agree that by banning the import of Chinese goods would help a lot more.

Anonymous said...

I beg to differ with my good friend Bilbo. I hearken back to 1936. Had God not sent Jesse Owens to mess up Hitler's tea party, the Berlin Olympics would have been exactly the racist triumph Adolf hoped for. I believe the real point is that the protests are aimed at and are successful in raising the consciousness of those not living in China--to prevent a propaganda and diplomatic coup for the despicable Chinese regime. Thus I believe they should be covered extensively, and for once our MSM habit of focusing on the visually spectacular is a good thing.
Make no mistake. China hopes to leverage this Olympics politically, economically, and diplomatically. To do my little bit to prevent that, as a patriotic American, I will personally boycott this Olympics, and I hope enough people see ny and the and the protestors' point to give this Olympics the lowest TV ratings ever. (I would rather watch reruns of "My Mother, the Car," thank you very much.) The athletes will get their medals, just as Jesse got his. They will not be hurt, as I'm sure their parents and loved ones will either be there or watching a TV somewhere. But let us not make this a Olympics a totalitarian triumph. Jesse Owens saved us from that in 1936--who else but the protesters can do it for us now? Forget the average Chinese. They have no choice but to try to make the best life they can under a horrific system that is more akin to a 10th century dynasty than to a Communist paradise. In either one, life sucks.

Chimera said...

I'm on side with the protesters, Bilbo. And the torch bearer would not get hurt if he willingly gave it up when they ask for it (don't the cops tell you always to give your wallet to the thief when he demands it -- no sense getting yourself killed over something that trivial?).

Olympic Athlete. Hobby, not profession. What's stopping them from organizing their own games and getting rid of the IOC while they're at it? They couldn't help but improve on the current model, even by accident.

Bilbo said...

I appreciate all the comments, especially from those of you who don't agree with me. Nevertheless, Chimera and Anonymous, I still respectfully disagree. The Chinese government is behaving in an odious way and deserves to take some heat, but ask yourself what you want the end result to be - if your goal is to change the behavior of the Chinese government and the opinions of the Chinese people, then mass protests interfering with the Olympic torch aren't going to do it. With its control of the media and the flow of information within China, the government will only let its people know that the rest of the world hates China. Period. If you want to change the Chinese behavior, then go with Katherine's suggestion above and work via economics: stop buying Chinese goods. THAT will get their attention in a way that fussing about the torch won't. And Anonymous, I don't think there's a realistic parallel to be drawn between Jesse Owens in 1936 and the situation today. Owens didn't participate in the Olympics with the goal of embarrassing Adolf Hitler, although he did a magnificent job of it - he went as an athlete trying to do his best against other athletes. Sticking a finger in Hitler's eye was a bonus. Thanks for the comments...let's agree to disagree. Best wishes to all of you!

Chimera said...

Bilbo, economic sanctins might work if the economy were the only weapon we had. But it's not. And economic sanctions of China will only hurt the consumers of their goods and the Chinese workers (who are not part of our problem but rather the victims in this). It might not hurt the Chinese government, at all.

I don't ever equate the government of a country with its people.

The Chinese government has a problem with anything that might seem to present competition of its "authority," which it holds to be absolute. Hence the crackdown on any kind of free expression, including protest.

But they also put a great deal of value in that nebulous thing called "face." They hate to be embarrassed or shown to be less than perfect in the eyes of the rest of the world. The protests embarass the Chinese governments. They are losing face. If we don't keep the protests going, they will grab that as a win for them, and not only will they keep up their human rights violations, but they are very likely to increase them!

A bully is a bully and needs to be resisted with everything in one's power.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous agrees that Chimera makes a wonderful point. I wish I had thought of that!

I know Jesse Owens wanted to do his best; Owens was a very smart man, and I think he did better than his best because he understood he was competing on behalf of America and for people of color everywhere.