Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Germany’s logic on Tibet

“A boycott of the Olympic Games, as some have demanded ... would only penalize the athletes and those who have been training for years,” a German government spokesman said yesterday in response to pressure on Berlin and other governments to pull out of the August Olympic Games in Beijing following its violent crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators. About 100 people are believed to have died since the clashes began.

The problem with that argument is that if we were to follow the logic of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, we could expect it to say with regards to the suspected military nuclear program in Iran, for example, that Germany should continue to sell dual-use equipment to Tehran because a ban, or sanctions, would be unfair to German companies that have worked hard for years to develop their industries.

The spokesman continues: “For human rights, for the people of Tibet and for the Tibetans in other Chinese provinces — a boycott would change nothing about their situation,” a view that almost simultaneously was shared by Patrick Hickey, the head of the European National Olympic Committees.

But this is wrong. As China strives to portray its “rise” as a “peaceful” one, it is at a point in its history where external pressure may be at its most effective. Consequently, to claim that a boycott of the Games — or the threat of doing so — would only hurt the athletes and fail to sway the authorities in Beijing is misguided at best. In the past decade or so, Beijing has backed down on a number of issues (natural resources in the South China Sea, to give but one example) largely as a result of its desire to maintain its image of a responsible power. While it is true that Beijing considers the Tibet issue a “domestic” problem, which means that international pressure is unlikely to be as effective in forcing China to change its policies than on external matters, the international community nevertheless cannot stand by and do nothing. And mere words of condemnation won’t suffice.

While it is true that the athletes have been preparing for years and that a boycott would obviate all that hard work, it remains that sports should not have precedence over basic human rights, including the lives of innocent people. But by publicly announcing its opposition to a boycott, Berlin (and Hickey) was telling Beijing that it has a free hand in how it deals with its people and that it will not suffer any consequences to its actions. This kind of language can only invite further abuse, perhaps even escalation, for which Tibetans (and by rebound Uyghurs and other minorities) will suffer.

As a purported leader of the European continent, Germany gets a failing grade on this one. Of course, what Berlin really has in mind isn’t the poor Olympic athletes it ostensibly wants to protect, or that so-called “Olympic spirit,” but rather, as always, the lucrative business deals that accompany smooth relations with Beijing.


Taiwan Nushu said...

I'm with you that Germany should not sell dual use equipment to Iran. However, no country has yet hinted at a boycott of the Beijing Olympic games. Why criticize Germany for this? Not even Taiwan has made such a proposal!

This is quite unfair, when you consider that Chancellor Merkel (like Bush) has met with the Daila Lama in 2007, even though China had warned her against such a meeting.

I think that the Games are an opportunity for the West to open China even more to foreign influence. A boycott could be a loss of face and could lead to isolation resulting in something like in North Korea.

MikeinTaipei said...

Dear Taiwan Nushu:

My piece focuses on Germany because it was the first European country yesterday to officially oppose a boycott (note that I also criticize Patrick Hickey). Moreover, at the time of writing, Germany was, as far as I am aware, the only country to have come out and said this. Had another country done so (Canada, for example), I would have criticized it, too, as I have criticized Canada on a great number of issues on this blog. I also belive that what Berlin says has more of an impact on overall EU positions than, if, say, it had been Slovenia making the comment.

Merkel, Bush and Canada's Harper should all be commended for meeting the Dalai Lama; while I may not have done so on this blog, I have done that in articles and editorials.

Some believe in sanctions, others don't. On this issue, I do, as I believe China has for far too long been given carte blanche. Furthermore, as it becomes more integrated into the global economy - and dependent on it - it will be increasingly to responsive to external pressure. In fact, some have argued that the opening up that occurred in the 1990s was partly the result of Beijing's desire to improve its image following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

Sanctions, boycotts and isolation need not necessarily turn a country into a North Korea. Remember South Africa under Apartheid?

Stefan said...

Hi Mike,

As a German I support your critique of the German government's statement. It's one thing not to call for a boycott, it's quite another to re-assure the Chinese government.

Merkel did get under a lot of pressure after meeting the Dalai Lama, which may have contributed to her wimpy reaction. That's not an excuse though - China depends at least as much on the West as the West on China. There is no reason to let the Chinese dominate the relationship. If Europe and the US were united in this, China wouldn't be able to pull it off.

MikeinTaipei said...

Dear Stefan:

Thanks for your comment. I think that's exactly it; the problem is that on many issues the West has allowed Beijing to dominate the relationship because it always manages to bring things down to the bilateral level. Given China's dependence on the international system, a united front would compel it to listen.

Stefan said...

This here could be interesting:
Germany Suspends Aid Talks with China - http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,3203751,00.html