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Why we must boycott the Olympics

Before considering a few arguments on why a boycott is obligatory, let’s be clear about why this is not yet happening on any significant scale. There are, I think, at least two broad reasons. The most pivotal has to do with the ambivalent attitude of power towards human rights and the other with the inherent conservatism of the Dalai Lama’s diplomacy:

Firstly, we have to understand that China is not alone in fearing the politicisation of the Games.

Virtually every major corporation and government that has vested interests in Beijing’s burgeoning economic power does as well. Or, as one of the executives of the Olympic sponsors tellingly opined in the Wall Street Journal: “We think when the Games start, as has always been the case, people will focus on the Games.” What that means, of course, is that people will also be paying attention to the sponsors, as they enjoy the marketing benefits of billions of eyes glued to one of the most effective platforms — sport.

Leaving Tibet aside for one moment, the basic fact is that so many big-brand corporations exploit — albeit through the ellipsis of outsourcing — China’s brutalised workforce.

As Paul Mason has pointed out, in his recent global history of the working class, Live Working or Die Fighting, a 12-year sentence is the standard punishment for any attempt by a Chinese worker to form a free trade union.

Where workers have gone on wildcat strikes — as they did after the largest global sofa company, DeCoro, cut wages by 20% in 2003 and the Italian managers allegedly kicked and punched an initial group of dissenters — riot police have been deployed to crush their resistance.

Furthermore, numerous reports from the likes of China Labour Watch, Human Rights Watch, Students and Scholars against Corporate Behaviour have regularly drawn attention to how Adidas, Disney, Quicksilver, Regina Miracle Speedo and Wal-Mart, to name but a few, all benefit from onerous sweatshops.

If you want to know what this all means for the Olympics in particular, then consider the PlayFair 2008 review, titled No Medal for the Olympics on Labour Rights, which — after researching four companies awarded licences to manufacture official Olympic-branded goods — describes “some very disturbing scenes”:

Mainland Headwear Holdings Limited, for instance — whose other customers include the likes of Ellese, Manchester United, the NBA and Reebok — requires its workforce to work more than 13 hours a day, seven days a week and for 50% of the legal minimum wage. It hires underage children and it intimidates workers into lying: “Sometimes visiting inspectors will interview workers at random, and if the workers tell the truth — that is, do not give the prepared answers — they are fired immediately.”

But instead we are conversely reassured — almost daily now by a variety of apparently concerned spokespeople — that the presence of the West mysteriously brings with it a greater awareness of human rights.

Whoever says that has either not read, or is wilfully ignoring, yet another report produced by Europe Solidaire sans Frontières, revealing how in 2006 both the American and European chambers of commerce (including, among others, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nike, Procter & Gamble, and one of the perennial sponsors of the Olympics, General Electric) petitioned the Chinese government not to afford workers — whose increasing strikes were unsettling Beijing — the benefits of a new draft labour law.

The New York Times defines this “race to the bottom” that these vested interests want to defend rather well:

“China’s growth relies on cheap labour. The foreign-invested factories here, including production centres for most multinational companies, depend on a flexible work force that actually grows cheaper by the year … [China] continues to draw capital essentially because it is willing to rent workers for falling returns.”

I have written previously about the lack of probity of Messrs Gordon Brown and David Miliband who, as courtesans of Chinese capital, side-step the manifold evidence of its wide-ranging political repression while scoring cheap political victories against the likes of Zimbabwe. I will, however, include here Brown’s equivocation as regards recent events in Tibet. When asked about it while in Brussels, he said: “We have asked for more information about what is going on and we will keep this matter under review.”

In essence it wasn’t too different from the US State Department when it suggested, just a few days after the decision to demote China from its list of worst human-rights offenders, that: “We don’t have a clear understanding of exactly what has happened and what is going on in those areas.”

Such, then, are the deliberate omissions of both corporate and state power.

The second reason why a boycott has not developed momentum is that the Dalai Lama does not support it. This is, I believe, a major strategic mistake on his behalf at a time of a renewed activism and global interest in the Roof of the World.

One has to wonder at times about the wisdom of this Boddhisattva who extends compassionate understanding to the point of praising Deng Xiaoping and the “gentleness” of Mao Zedong but fails to understand that the more he accommodates — by, for example, scaling back demands for independence — the more, like the Chinese working class, he is driven backwards. He’s right, of course, that judgement without understanding is an affront to morality, but he is irresponsible to the extent that that understanding belies the necessity of a judgement.

While the Chinese are waiting for this powerful archetype to die and while Western leaders will meet the Dalai Lama but refuse any commitment, we should differentiate between his symbolic power and the fact that it is the activists in the Tibetan Youth Congress and ordinary Tibetans who need our primary support.

This brings us logically to why we should call for a boycott in general, and as South Africans in particular.

I read recently of Italian protesters who unfurled a banner in central Rome stating: “We are all Tibetans.”

This, I think, is profoundly true. Firstly, there is no collective future without the foundational value of human rights, only an instrumentalist barbarism.

The American Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi is correct in saying that because of this crisis, “we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world”. If one is really concerned about Burma, Sudan or Zimbabwe (all note — allies of this bulwark of pathological sovereignty), then we have to be coherent and consistent in both our criticism and practice.

We have to boycott the Olympics because people are not a profitable means to an end but an end in themselves.

Secondly, “We are [again] all Tibetans” — because there is no collective future without the globalisation of consent, only the dictatorship of commodities.

The Chinese have foisted a form of so-called “development” on the Tibetans that precludes their consent, in order to benefit from deposits of copper and uranium. This imperialism is the modus operandi of our global economic system and is not only using its leverage in China to depress global wages but, through its greed, is also pushing every index that measures life on this planet into decline.

We have to boycott the Olympics because ordinary people have the democratic right to decide their destiny and not just the powerful and the rich.

We as South Africans, who have benefited from the boycotts of others, should be particularly outspoken. In fact, if we did, we could still use that bit of moral capital that we have left and punch above our international weight. We would, I think, alone tip the balance in favour of a new Olympian idealism — one that, for instance, will start by meeting International Labour Organisation standards.

(In this regard it is interesting to note that over and above a motley crowd of individual objectors, the loudest voices to date have come from ordinary Germans, including even some prospective athletes — haunted by memories of 1936 — and from Poles who only recently were under a similar totalitarian regime.)

To those who say it is too late or that it won’t change anything, we should remind them of the day-to-day courage and determination shown by countless activists who are struggling for the basic freedoms that the former take for granted. Nor — and this is more of a danger — should we be taken in by the dissimulations of other heads of state, such as giving up, for a few desultory hours, their customary VIP seat next to President Hu Jintao; we should recall instead Cicero’s insight that “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

For once let’s do the right thing and boycott the entire spectacle produced by an unholy alliance of corporate and state propagandists.

Let the words of the dissident blogger Hu Jia, who is currently standing trial — for the very freedom you now enjoy in reading this — become the epitaph of this injustice:

“Know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood.”