Thursday, April 10, 2008

Human rights, China and the boycott of the Olympics

I have just heard a curious discussion on CBC Radio 1 on the subject of whether Canada should boycott this year's Olympics in Beijing over China's "violation of human rights". The opinions expressed by the three people participating in the discussion were as such: the first gentleman, a writer, was stating that we must absolutely pull out of the Olympics despite the sacrifice of the athletes, and questioning why in the world would IOC think of awarding Olympics to China. A lady who happened to be an athlete disagreed with him passionately along the lines of boycott being entirely unfair to the athletes; the third gentleman took a position in between stating that we shouldn't boycott the Olympics but instead just stop buying everything made in China, which would certainly attract their attention.

What a fest of hypocrisy and self-righteousness. What strikes me is that in this discussion the main point of disagreement is whether or not a boycott would be fair to the athletes; whether or not a boycott was in itself appropriate didn't even seem to be a question.

Well, what's there to think about: China is this horrible oppressive regime; China violates human rights by imprisoning dissidents and making women have abortions and whatever else; China is evil: no Olympics for China. Simple as that, right?

Respect for every individual and undeniable human rights for everybody everywhere are beautiful concepts, but so is the concept of universal free beer. Just wishing for it and talking about it simply isn't going to make it happen around the whole world, overnight. The problem is, what we call "basic human rights" are not inherent or universal, insofar as we all can't agree that there is an inherent and universal force -- deity -- whatever -- making those rights the basis of the universal moral code. And if we can't, we have no choice of treating these rights as simply values -- values that we are lucky to have made their way pretty deeply into our prosperous and economically fortunate western societies. Said simply, we're lucky to have historically worked out a common understanding that everybody is better off when people have "rights" and effectively can do whatever they please insofar as they don't threaten the lives and properties of others. We're lucky to be in an economic situation that makes the level of social tension low and widespread tolerance and compassion possible. To a great degree, this luck of ours is really a contingency.

Does this give us a right to pass judgement on China the way many people in the West are doing right now? Absolutely not. We're talking about a huge, complex society that is facing problems never faced before by humanity, and finding solutions to them in admirable ways. During the last 40 years, China has shown the world an unparalleled economic miracle, relieved the social tensions and improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people in ways never thought possible.

The comparisons of the "human rights" situation in US/Canada with China are utterly ridiculous. For some reason, the people making such comparisons forget that they're talking about the countries at the top of the economic food chain, which are prosperous exactly because at some point of time they had an economic/technological advantage over China etc., and because they are currently exploiting China, etc., as colonies providing cheap labour.
Dear human rights activists from a 35-million nation, please allow me to remind you that your (and my) Nike/Addidas/Eco-brand-that-only-uses-organic-hemp shoes have been produced by a child/teenager/mother working in an unsafe factory on a 14-hour shift. Oh, but at least we have nothing to do with jailing dissidents and making women have abortions, right?

Stop the hypocrisy. We must absolutely give China the respect, admiration and encouragement that it rightly deserves by its unbelievable accomplishments of the last 40 years.

Finally, the change has always come from within -- and in China it will take decades or centuries or however long it takes. And meanwhile, we have a choice of hypocritically booing China and locking ourselves up in this rosy idealistic world with the illusion of our own commitment to human rights, or instead being honest with ourselves about the price of the socioeconomic situation in our own countries, and attempting to act according to our beliefs in a non-judgmental fashion in this complex and imperfect world.


  1. A couple of points:

    First, you're not quite correct in you relativism argument. You're essentially equating lack of proof for God, with lack of proof of universal values. Firstly, to quote you: absence of proof, isn't proof of absence. Second, even if there is no God, there may well be some kind of other universality of values. One such universality is certainly our common genetic heritage. There is no question in my mind that our morality has been evolving with us and is now, at least partially, rooted in our genetics. In our existential age that's as close as you're likely to get to universality.

    Secondly, how to affect a society begs a question: what right do we have to affect a society like China? This is of course a gray area since the concept of "us" versus "them" is relative at best, but just because there is a gray middle, doesn't mean you don't have some pretty dark and light ends. Let's agree that Torontonians, Ottawans and so on for the most part basically know nothing about a place, half way around the world, speaking a different language, coping with problems that we can't even imagine. Let's put it this way: if you want to criticize China, the least you can do is learn Chinese first.

    Thirdly, what is a nation state anyway and why should nationhood equate with independence? Tibet should be independent! Kosovo should be independent! Abkhazia should be independent! What? Oh, no! They're Russian backed! What about the Macedonian Albanians? What about the Cree in Quebec? What about Quebec? And what does independence mean in a world of international law, inter-dependence, international and non governmental organizations and so on. Is this moral issue or a governance issue?

    Finally, boycotting the Olympics is irrelevant, because the games themselves are stupid. First the whole idea of grown-ups taking snowboarding seriously is ridiculous. Second if they do take them seriously, is there any reason why they have to compete with judges handing out medals to the "best" of them? Lastly, if they must compete, do they have to compete under of all things a country's flag? But no, the Games aren't political, are they?

    So: Even if values are universal, we don't know squat, knowing more still wouldn't give us the right to interfere, the issue isn't clear-cut anyway, and the proposed solution is silly.

    GL - GL.Mimino.Org

  2. You're perfectly right, the potential absence of God doesn't have to necessarily mean absence of universality of values. And I completely agree that the genetic/behavioral argument is our best bet for an argument for universality of values.

    I guess one of the main points that I was trying to make is, what in the world gives us the right for being so full of ourselves about our "achievements" in respecting human rights? Granted, certain individuals in our society at certain points of time may've made conscious choices about the direction we'd choose -- but the environment and the socioeconomic context has made these changes easier.

    Secondly, I absolutely agree that we have no right whatsoever to tell China what to do, and unless we want to crawl up in a corner and cut off relations with everybody who's less cute and fluffy than a box of kittens, we must go out and treat China with respect.

    Of course, an obvious counterargument is, are we supposed to step in when we observe a genocide in progress? I do think scale and quantity matter,-- but it is still a hard decision to make. Remember Rick from Casablanca: "I don't stick out my neck for nobody". Let's just say that the likes of politicians urging the boycott of Chinese Olympics today did nothing to stop a genocide in Cambodia or Rwanda. That's because intervening in a genocide is hard and bloody and costly, and boycotting Olympics is easy and good for the ego.

    Thirdly, on the subject of Olympics being silly... it's first and foremost a ceremony, and also one which, despite all the politics around it, might be valuable insofar as it allows an American athlete to see what a real Iranian athlete looks like :) I don't think I mind ceremonies too much.