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Beijing Olympics: To Boycott or Not?

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One year from now, the 2008 Summer Olympics will be taking place in Beijing, China. The media have already started covering the preparations and glamorizing the whole affair.

But, hidden away from the eyes of the world, far away from the glitz and the pageantry, is a much uglier side of China -- its long and horrible record of human rights abuses.

In a recent press release, Amnesty International (AI) charges that "time is running out for the Chinese government to fulfill its promise of promoting human rights as part of the Olympics legacy." In the same press release, AI cites a number of key human rights areas that it has urged the Chinese authorities to address prior to the Olympics. These include the death penalty, detention without trial, persecution of human rights activists, and restrictions on media freedom (including Internet communication).

To make matters even worse, it appears that increased detentions without trial are being used to "clean up" Beijing in preparation for the Olympic Games. In other words, the Chinese authorities may be using the Games as an excuse for further human rights abuses.

Some people have called for a U.S. boycott of the Olympics. To that end, a resolution has been introduced in the House of Representatives calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing unless China stops engaging in serious human rights abuses.

At first, a boycott may sound appealing. After all, a boycott by the U.S. would certainly focus a lot of media attention on the reasons behind the boycott. And, if a number of other nations followed suit, the resulting economic and political pressures on Beijing might lead the Chinese authorities to reconsider their policies lest they risk further global isolation.

Upon further analysis, however, a U.S. boycott of the Games could create more problems -- for us -- than it solves.

First, it could backfire on Wall Street, due to China's growing influence on the U.S. economy. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, China is now our second-largest trading partner, our fourth-largest export market, and our second-largest source of imports. As the report also points out, "Inexpensive Chinese imports have increased the purchasing power of U.S. consumers. Many U.S. companies have extensive manufacturing operations in China in order to sell their products in the booming Chinese market and to take advantage of low-cost labor for exported goods. China's purchases of U.S. Treasury securities have funded federal deficits and helped keep U.S. interest rates relatively low." Imagine the effects if China wanted to retaliate for an Olympic boycott.

Second, and more important from a moral standpoint, the U.S. is in no position to point the finger at China with regard to human rights. Yes, China has a horrible human rights record. But our own human rights record has become deeply stained in recent years with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and an Attorney General who thinks the Geneva Conventions are "quaint".

Yes, China needs to stop its human rights abuses and change the policies that lead to those abuses. And I hope that people around the world will be raising their voices about it before, during, and after the 2008 Olympics -- for as long as it takes.

But for the U.S. to boycott the Games would be the height of hypocrisy, and the world knows it. Until the U.S. cleans up its own act, its criticism of China amounts to nothing more than the pot calling the kettle black.

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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