Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

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Gordon Campbell on the Olympics

July 31st, 2008

The Olympics are now almost upon us. But before going there…Do you think Winston Peters, in his role as Foreign Minister of course, is being fully briefed by MFAT about a current and fascinating global trend – which entails senior politicians getting sacked or being forced to resign, for taking gifts from wealthy businessmen. This week’s casualties include : Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert ,who said today he will resign in September for taking gifts from a US businessman Moshe Talansky, gifts that the Guardian newspaper says are suspected by police as being “bribes…or illegal campaign financing.”

Meanwhile, veteran US politician Ted Stevens – the longest serving Republican in the Senate, is facing prosecution for failing to report more than $250,000 in gifts, within the financial disclosure forms that he filed between 1999 to 2006. As Minister of Racing, Peters will know that some gift horses really are worth looking in the mouth…lest they come back to bite you.

Yesterday, it surfaced that Helen Clark has signed up to an Amnesty International protest over capital punishment in China. When taken together with the fact that Clark is not joining other heads of state ( such as George Bush or Sarkozy) in Beijing, this represents an interesting change of tack by New Zealand, now that the China FTA has been signed. New Zealand will instead be joining the likes of Poland in sending a ceremonial representative, in our case, the Governor-General. Does MFAT think it is a good idea for our head of state not to show up at China’s biggest party in decades ? If it is a conscious snub, what point exactly is being made by Clark not attending?

The decision not to go to the Games is all the more surprising in the light of how assiduously we have courted China in recent times. Even George Bush has met the Dalai Lama on three separate occasions – but our government has cravenly ducked him. Exactly a year ago, we resisted US pressure to take in a group of Uighur refugees from Guantanamo Bay, lest sympathy for this separatist minority in China should offend the regime For similar reasons, when Kosovo declared its independence earlier this year it was easy to understand why China, ever sensitive about the political aspirations of its own minorities, should have expressed reservations about Kosovo’s claim to self determination. Yet, as – the New York Times noted at the time, so did New Zealand, and the then-imminent FTA deal seems to have been the only logical explanation. Now, with the ink on that FTA barely dry, our leader is not going to Beijing’s big party. Curious.

Much media attention has been given to how the IOC’s decision to award the Games to Beijing has backfired. Rather than improve its human rights record, the Chinese government has actually significantly toughened its stance against dissidents, separatists, human rights activists, peasant protesters, journalists and Internet users. The censorship of the Internet – last year China closed access to 2,500 sites and jailed 51 online dissidents – has now extended to the foreign journalists covering the Games.

So far none of this has led to any discernible protests from the New Zealand government. Nor have there been any actions in solidarity with their persecuted Chinese colleagues by the NZ journalists who will be covering the Games. Or as yet, any actions by the NZ athletes themselves. They could protest, if so inclined. Earlier this year, Parliament did manage to rescue our athletes from an outrageous attempt by the NZ Olympic Association to muzzle their freedom of speech.

Originally, clause 7.1c in the contracts for NZ athletes had forbidden them to make statements or get involved in any demonstrations about political, religious, or racial matters. This clause was amended to make it conform to the freedom of expression formulations of the Olympic Charter – but another clause 7.1d forbids blogging from the Games by our athletes, even though Australian and Canadian Games athletes are allowed free to do so, if they want.

Once the competition gets under way in Beijing, the spectacle of the Games may still overwhelm its unsavoury prelude. Essentially as the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs magazine points out

Hosting the Olympics was supposed to be a chance for China’s leaders to showcase the country’s rapid economic growth and modernization to the rest of the world. Domestically, it provided an opportunity for the Chinese government to demonstrate the Communist Party’s competence and affirm the country’s status as a major power on equal footing with the West. And wrapping itself in the values of the Olympic movement gave China the chance to portray itself not only as a rising power but also as a “peace-loving” country.

From the outset, the Chinese government has approached the Games as if they were a sporting version of earlier infrastructure projects such as the Great Wall, or the Three Gorges Dam. Such Herculean feats of organization are, as Foreign Affairs says, tailor-made to display China’s greatest political and economic strengths: the top-down mobilization of resources, the development and execution of grand-scale campaigns to reform public behavior, and the ability to attract foreign interest and investment to one of the world’s brightest new centress of culture and business.

No effort, or money has been spared. China’s rulers have built new venues for the competition, spruced up or razed unsightly neighbourhoods, shut down polluting industries, and officially discouraged distasteful behaviour such as spitting on the sidewalks or elbowing to the front of bus queues. All this effort made during the run- up the Games is now unraveling, as all the global attention to China has proved to be a two edged sword. Yes, China’s awesome march towards modernisation is being showcased at the Games – but so too, it is harshly repressive political system. As the Foreign Affairs authors sum up :

Few in the central leadership seem to have anticipated the extent to which the Olympic Games would stoke the persistent political challenges to the legitimacy of the Communist Party and the stability of the country. Demands for political liberalization, greater autonomy for Tibet, increased pressure on Sudan, better environmental protection, and an improved product-safety record now threaten to put a damper on the country’s coming-out party. As the Olympic torch circled the globe with legions of protesters in tow, Beijing’s Olympic dream quickly turned into a public-relations nightmare.

Although the Chinese government excels when it comes to infrastructure projects, its record is poor when it comes to transparency, official accountability, and the rule of law. It has responded clumsily to internal and external political challenges — by initially ignoring the international community’s desire for China to play a more active role in resolving the human rights crisis in Darfur, arresting prominent Chinese political activists, and cracking down violently on demonstrators.

Although there is no organized opposition unified around this set of demands, the cacophony of voices pressuring China to change its policies has taken much of the luster off of the Beijing Games. Moreover, although the Communist Party has gained domestic support from the nationalist backlash that has arisen in response to the Tibetan protesters and their supporters in the West, it also worries that this public anger will spin out of control, further damaging the country’s international reputation. Already, China’s coveted image as a responsible rising power has been tarnished.

For many in the international community, it has now become impossible to separate the competing narratives of China’s awe-inspiring development and its poor record on human rights and the environment. It is no longer possible to discuss China’s future without taking its internal fault lines seriously. For the Chinese government, the stakes are huge. China’s credibility as a global leader, its potential as a model for the developing world, and its position as an emerging center of global business and culture are all at risk…

Given the wounds inflicted over the past 150 years by predatory Westerners, it is hardly surprising that China is hypersensitive to any such criticism, and is proving all too prone to feel itself the victim of foreign machinations. “Irrationality in the name of patriotism is the way Chinese are taught to think,” the historian Yuan Weishi of the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou told US Business Week magazine in its June 23, 2008 issue. “ This is our inheritance, and it is still very much with us.”

This mindset certainly raises the stakes. Administratively, Business Week concluded, the Games are likely to go well enough. But China…”supremely confident in some respects and in others lacking all certainty…will be prepared to erupt at the merest hint of a foreign slight.” Given that volatility, has the Clark government really thought through how the PM’s non-attendance at the Games will be read by the hosts ? And have our athletes been advised about the consequences that may flow from their participation in any protests – which would be bound to have far great effect and face far stricter repression than at any other Olympics since the notorious 1936 Games in Berlin ? It would be handy if the athletes were being told by the NZOA about their legal rights, and what to do if they get arrested.

Actually, the Berlin Games are a fitting comparison for this year’s Olympic spectacle, and can serve as the best rejoinder to any Neanderthals who still think that athletes have no business making political protests at the Games.

To surrender the right of freedom of political expression by athletes ( and deny them the chance to exploit the vantage point they will enjoy ) is to ignore the obvious – namely, that the Games are already being massively exploited by business sponsors for commercial ends, and by the hosts for economic and nationalist purposes. The athletes are already pawns within these processes – and perhaps more of them should be speaking publicly about how they feel about playing such a role for the benefit of Chinese foreign policy.
After all, New Zealand triggered the modern era of political protest at the Olympics.

It was our rugby contact with apartheid South Africa that led African nations to boycott the `1976 Olympics in Montreal – and that protest created the template for the boycotts at Moscow four years later, and again at Los Angeles in 1984.

This year, it would be re-assuring to think that our politicians – and our athletes – were absolutely sure about the upside and downside of protesting and not protesting at Beijing. Because at these Olympics, there are no innocent bystanders.


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