Monday, August 11, 2008

Are the Olympics a Vehicle for Promoting Human Rights?

Over the past few days, I have been torn over the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the appearance of goodwill that the Chinese government attempts to promote. Without a doubt, China has used the Olympics as a vehicle to assert its own political and economic strength as a goodwill neighbor opening doors to foreigners. Reminds me of placing your best china out for guests (even if cracks are propagating throughout). However, the reality behind those once closed doors can no longer hide the human rights violations that continue to take place.

Part of me wants to believe that boycotting the Olympics by simply not watching it would illustrate my protest of human rights violations. But then would my peacemaking education contradict my actions? After reviewing Eugene Robinson’s Washington Post article, Smog in Beijing, I began to ask myself if engaging with those we oppose actually creates an opportunity for peacebuilding, while at the same time creating building blocks for transparency.

By allowing the Beijing Olympics to take place, the world can begin to peer over and see exactly what our neighbors’ backyard looks like, even if the front lawn is perfectly manicured. This year alone, we have seen how the Chinese government has responded to Tibetan protests and the Sichuan earthquake by not allowing certain civil liberties to be exercised. The March 2008 non-violent protest in Tibet provided a picture of how violent the Chinese government crackdowns can be, which resulted in a number of civilian deaths. Likewise, a number of parents, who criticized the lack of aid and the unresponsiveness of politicians, were arrested. And the list goes on and on. But this is really an opportunity to quantify how China behaves towards their citizens, particularly those who protest non-violently. Imagine that restriction held upon every American who is visiting China. Don’t complain, or you will get arrested.

Ironically, the Olympic Charter defines the Olympics as "a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." So if there was ever a case to present the contradiction of universal ethics, the stage presents itself in Beijing. Truly the spotlight is on them, and we are watching their performance.

However, the Olympic Games does give foreign governments an opportunity to positively create or reinvigorate existing relationships. Likewise, the Olympics give athletes, visitors, and Chinese citizens an opportunity to exchange ideas and begin building a bridge of communication, instead of continuing to make a myriad of generalizations about the Other.

In the end, we may not agree with their treatment of civil liberties, but creating stepping-stones to continue communication may allow for some of our human rights opinions to trickle in and change society one person at a time. And this could be a chance to improve relationships instead of ignoring them.

In the end, we still have the choice to turn off the TV and voice our opinions if we disagree with the Chinese government. But aren’t we so lucky to have that choice?


Jaime Lotter said...

I am torn over this Olympic year. I think the Olympics really are a great opportunity for communication between cultures, creating common ground, and showing the world we can be at peace with each other even if it's only for a few weeks. Not to mention national pride at a time when pride in the US is hard to come by. AND, it's also a place where teens and young people are achieving great things and making a positive influence on others.

But I think the Olympics ARE and SHOULD BE a vehicle for human rights. The Olympics already ARE a vehicle for human rights in the way it treats the volunteers and performers from their own country. There have been numerous stories to come out that have described a day in the life of a volunteer from China; coaching on what to wear, how to speak, what not to ask, and the kind of image to present to foreigners, especially from the Western world. I think this is outrageous and just the first example of the ways China has been given the permission to use the Olympics to offer the world a facade of good behavior and greatness as a country and culture. Today, it was released that a child who sung in the opening ceremonies actually didn't sing at all, but lip synced a song written by another girl who was not cute enough to be put on stage. This is tragic to me, and another example of ignoring fundamental principles of humanity that I just can't wrap my head around. Hearing these stories makes me want to stop watching these competitions, and almost undermines China's victories for me, however skilled they may be. Are those athletes made to participate in these sports? How are they treated through training? It's almost like the sick feeling I get watching the prisoners in the Philippines do Michael Jackson's Thriller for the world.

The Olympics SHOULD BE a vehicle for human rights, because it's already used as a vehicle for peace. The Georgian and Russian athletes shaking hands, the Iraqi athletes in participation, and the Sudanese runners are just a few examples of ways these events, for a few weeks, transcend international conflict. It is a forum where a set of rules apply to everyone, and everyone agrees that they exist for a purpose. Athletes coexist as equals, under the same laws, ethics, and standards. How then, is it so difficult to get people to agree when the stakes are even higher that we should accept our interdependence?

Either way, I can't wait to watch the women's gymnastics finals tonight. I am amazed at the achievements of these athletes and the level of commitment they have to their sports. I am also generally hopeful, however naive, that the Olympics can continue to be a forum for peace and an example of the kind of common ground that we can build a foundation of peace upon.

Kelly Bisogno said...

I think this is a great way to promote human rights. Yes, the Chinese workers receive coaching on how to present a certain facade, etc etc - but now the whole world is learning about it. My 4-7th grade art students were asking me last week why the Olympics are controversial this year. We were able to have a conversation about the human rights issues and why some are choosing to boycott. That's 15 more people aware of the situation. All 15 will be watching the Olympics, but they now understand the world a little better and the difficult issues we have to confront when watching the China Olympics specifically and engaging with other countries in general. I too have learned a lot about the Chinese government via Olympic reporting that I would not have known otherwise. I'm also willing to save the confrontations for another day and enjoy the weeks of good sportsmanship. There may be more poignant conversations in the future because of the awareness many Americans are gaining because of the coverage.

Sarah said...

While I am saddened over the human rights issue in China, I'm watching these Games and trying to concentrate more on the athletes and less on the politics. I agree with Jaime that these Games are a way to promote peace in the world, as well as a time for thousands of athletes to show the world how hard they've worked to get this far. I've been spending the last couple of weeks working with my young cheerleaders. More than anything else right now I'm trying to instill in them a sense of team pride; if they work together as one cohesive unit, they can accomplish anything. I've also been trying to make sure they understand how important they all are as individuals. If one person doesn't give 100%, the whole team suffers. They're learning how crucial their own presence is, and how the team depends on each of its members. I've been using the Olympics as an example of how dedication to one's team, and a willingness to put aside personal differences can absolutely result in incredible feats.

So while I believe it's important that we all recognize the realities of what goes on in China when the world isn't watching, I think that what's most important is that we appreciate what the games are all about---embracing different cultures, love of country, dedication to one's team, and an appreciation and respect for the sacrifices that these athletes have made along the journey to Beijing.

SenoritaAndreita said...

My future mother-in-law who lives in Shanghai part of the year just sent met this email:

"Dear families,

Chinese government would not let BBC or CNN allow live broadcasting of the opening ceremony.

So we were not able to watch.

To me, it is a BIG Chinese SHOW…"

And it probably is, but the rest of the world has front row seats.