There have been cries around the world that China's human rights record means that the Olympics shouldn't be held there, or that we should boycott them now that they are being. I was involved in a debate about the topic myself against an American team (in the air force academy, which is very nice!). Although on that day we were asked to give the arguments in favour of boycotting, I find the other side far more persuasive. (the Americans lost, but that might have been for introducing nuclear was as the end result of a boycott - just a hunch...)
The main reasons that I think that the Olympics being in China is a good thing are as follows:
1. It creates a greater openness. It would be facile to say that the Olympics have improved the lot of ordinary Chinese, theirs being generally left unchanged, and in some cases even damaged. However, the games have brought increased international attention to China's human rights record. For example, both the BBC news and Newsnight led with stories about it yesterday. The Olympics are not, as China would like, just boosting national pride and prestige. With free reporters entering their country, many people are looking deeper than just sport and evaluating China's record. There's a lot more room for improvement, but will only come from greater engagement, not less. One need only look to the examples of North Korea, Burma and Cuba to see that isolating countries is not a very effective way of engendering liberal values. The only way that China will change is with pressure from without and within. The more knowledge there is about the situation on the ground, the more pressure there will be. That pressure can create change because
2. The Chinese government care deeply what people think about them. Their desire to be seen as a decent country has had a positive effect on global affairs in the last couple of years. The notoriously isolationist ''sleeping dragon'' has let out a fiery yawn or two in the direction of tradition allies that have made a big difference. Firstly, they have shifted from their (admittedly reprehensible) original position on Darfur and now support UN intervention. They have also been involved in putting pressure on North Korea to abandon their nuclear programme, and were instrumental in forcing the Burmese to accept international aid following the Tsunami there. While they could do much more on the international stage, these are good signs and should be encouraged. Switching to a more hostile stance as they start to engage more is the worst possible idea.
3. They're here to stay. They've grown 54% since the last Olympics. That bears repeating. In four years, they have added more than 50% to their wealth. That's an astonishing rate of growth. Its continuous re-telling robs it of its impact upon us, but there can be little doubt that China's growth is literally changing the way the world does not business. Many of the people who call for a boycott of the Beijing games do so for laudable ideological reasons. However, the chances are that a boycott or shaming of China would damage both them and us. Internally, it would make them more worried about dissent and more likely to crack down, and externally it would deepen their distrust of the global community. Many people have noted that the Olympics are China's ''coming out party'', proudly showing their new face to the world. Much better to welcome them cautiously and press for change than to disengage totally.
4. Precedent. From Hitler's Germany to Communist Russia, the modern Olympics have not had a stable relationship with democracy, and perhaps they shouldn't. Sport is something transformative which can cross borders and for a fleeting moment unite people in a common bond. When the Koreas walked out under the same flag last time around, it made a huge difference back home to the ordinary Koreans who dream that one day they they need not shout across mine-filled valleys to speak with their relatives. It's worth noting that as the Chinese people have accrued economic rights, their lives have genuinely improved both in terms of their life expectancy, and their freedom to make choices. It's not long ago that Mao decided he knew best how a farm should be run, and condemned millions to their death in the process. Things have slowly got better. By forming the many fleeting and lasting bonds that a large event like the Olympics we can help to show that there is another, better, way possible, and encourage the change in China to continue.
So, enjoy the games, and don't feel too guilty about it!
As an aside, if you want to check out the Irish medal hopes, check out this excellent blog which will be updated in the coming weeks.
Rings Image: Sherlock 77; the others are mine