By Chandran Nair
This column by Chandran Nair appears in the June 2008 issue of the Ethical Corporation magazine.
Racism and hypocrisy lie behind the approach of western politicians, campaigners and celebrities towards China, says Chandran Nair.
Throughout most of Asia, the wave of anti-China sentiment surrounding the Beijing Olympics is seen as a western-led effort with several causes.
One common view is that some western governments and companies see China, and other emerging parts of Asia, as a threat to their competitiveness and, because of a misplaced sense of superiority, cannot help themselves from lashing out.
Second is the view that the star power of the anti-China contingent, with celebrities such as Steven Spielberg and Mia Farrow voicing protest over China’s role in Darfur, provides the media with a convenient platform to bash China.
Add to this politicians, such as French president Nicolas Sarkozy and US speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi, showing solidarity with the Dalai Lama and the protests at the international Olympic torch relay, and talks of boycotting the opening ceremony gain wide public appeal in the west.
To many in Asia, it is ironic that Chinese public anger at this treatment is portrayed as nationalist fervour whereas similar sentiment in other nations would be touted as patriotism. Many Chinese and even neutral observers feel this portrayal is rooted in racism.
While it is not surprising that the Olympics is used to highlight topical concerns, what is disturbing is the hypocritical nature of the China-bashing. Tibet has been a political hot potato since the 1950s, yet international corporations have aggressively pursued investments in China for decades. The question remains: if it was acceptable to invest in China in 1990 or 2005, why is it not acceptable to support its position as Olympic host today?
A look at the history of Olympic controversies shows that the subject is riddled with double standards. The last event to be boycotted by some western nations was the Moscow Olympics. Yet, no-one questioned the Sydney Games even though the treatment of the aboriginal people in Australia over the past 100 years could easily be called genocidal.
Looking forwards, will anyone consider boycotting the London Olympics given that the UK was a key partner in an illegal war that has killed more than 100,000 civilians in Iraq, according to some estimates? Not likely, despite the fact that the link between the UK and war crimes in Iraq is much stronger than that between China and the awful suffering in Darfur.
The clear message to be drawn from this is that western powers can perpetrate human rights violations (witness Vietnam, Australia and Iraq), while others must answer for them.
The hypocrisy of the current controversy by no means excuses China from its responsibility in addressing the problems in Darfur and Tibet. But the world needs to understand that these situations are complex.
To suggest that the Chinese are not doing anything is naive and dishonest. In fact, the Chinese government is all too aware of the importance of social reform, as is shown by the “harmonious society” mandate that has dominated the policy agenda for several years. The government sees that the Olympics are a positive influence and has made significant steps by granting access to foreign media and attempting to address pollution and child labour issues in Beijing. Even in Darfur, diplomats credit China with helping to persuade Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping mission.
It can only be hoped that the west sees the damage it is causing itself and perhaps even the Tibetans by targeting the Beijing Olympics. The French have already witnessed the wrath of ordinary Chinese consumers whose indignance has led to the closure of more than 100 Carrefour stores nationwide. With the image of wheelchair-bound Chinese athlete Jin Jing being attacked by French mobs fresh in people’s minds, it is no wonder that Chinese people worldwide are livid at their leaders being called “goons and thugs” by CNN commentator Jack Cafferty in April.
Western interests must realise that China’s arrival as a global superpower means it must be respected as an equal. They must also understand that the rest of the world is watching. Western corporations are much too dependent on the Chinese economy to pander to the superficial posturing of their media and politicians.
As far as human rights is concerned, much more needs to be done in China. But an attempt to look beyond ideological stereotypes and embrace an active engagement policy is the only way to proceed.
Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow.