Every four years, the international community comes together to participate in the Olympic Games. But far more than simply sporting games and friendly competition, this event represents the pinnacle of international cooperation and cultural respect. The Olympics are a time when political differences are meant to be temporarily put aside, and cultural differences are not only embraced, but celebrated in forming one great global community. Because of this underlying sense of peace, nonpartisanship, and international cooperation, many people, including state and non-state actors, feel the games present a unique opportunity to raise awareness regarding current human rights issues. Therefore it is often perceived that the Olympics have not only created a new space for human rights dialogue, but also have served as a vehicle for human rights reform and advancement.
The Beijing Games of 2008 presented such an occasion as international attention turned to China, and cast an unforgiving spotlight on its laundry list of human rights violations. Considering Chinese human rights abuse had been a previous topic of international concern, the International Olympics Committee’s (IOC) decision to allow China to host the 2008 games, was not received without controversy. While some proponents of human rights felt China did not deserve to be an Olympic host, others argued for the benefit of bringing new awareness to violations and providing the subsequent opportunity for reform. It was expected that in return for the honor of serving as an Olympic host country, the Chinese government would engage in at minimum, open dialogue regarding human rights compliance, and at best, prompted to take verifiable steps towards extending further human rights protection.
Stated directly in the Olympic Charter drafted by the IOC, and agreed upon by all participants:
1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the
qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism
seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good
example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development
of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity. (*emphasis added)
Bound by these Fundamental Principles of Olympism, China willingly accepted its fate as the center of international scrutiny. Any action, whether domestic or foreign, became a viable subject of the inquiries made by its peers. Hence in the time leading up to the Olympics, as well as during the actual event, states, transnational advocacy groups, and domestic grassroots assemblies all used this unique leverage to call for compliance in human rights norms.
In this paper, I seek to analyze what issues were brought to the international stage by such actors, what mechanisms they used for applying pressure, and what action was taken by the Chinese government in response to these criticisms. Acknowledging the Olympic Games as a platform for human rights discussion, it is my goal to answer the question: What strategies proved to be most effective or ineffective in eliciting positive human rights reform and what factors best explain their success or failure?
While the Olympic Games are fundamentally concerned with fair competition and apolitical sporting events, there remains an inherent political nature contiguous to the whole affair. In bringing together a wide variety of nations, it is predictable for tensions to arise over conflicting interests, identities, and institutions. As scholar David Rowe explains, socially constituted sporting events are by virtue profoundly political due to their “combining and dividing social groups within and across nations; intervening in the politics of local, regional, and global representation; operating as instruments and vehicles of international relations.” Thus, in the case of the Olympic Games where the world has quite literally come together, a platform is indirectly established for dialogue concerning current international disputes.
The following is a very brief overview of the historical use of the Olympic Games as tool for human rights reform. In demonstrating their close relationship and providing specific examples, I hope to begin a conversation regarding not just the proof of their association, but the larger implications of their effects on one another.
Berlin Games 1936
What many consider to the first example of international actors using the Olympics as an instrument for political clout, the 1936 Berlin games began a trend of host counties engaging in strategic image creation. Most notably, it was during these games that the official Torch Relay came into existence. An initiative carefully designed by Carl Diem under the approval of Adolf Hitler, originated as deliberate way to showcase Aryan superiority. The culmination of the relay, staging runner Fritz Schilgen carrying the torch in front of a formation of swastikas, irrevocably demonstrated the radical political stance of Germany at that time (Olympic Flame Out, 2008).
Moreover, these games, commonly referred to as the “Nazi Olympics,” presented the first successful attempt in exploiting media technologies to create a “highly calculated, internationally mass-mediated image of the host city and nation that, quite literally ‘staged’ the Olympics” (Rowe, 2012). Occurring at such a pivotal time in history, these games set a precedent of allowing highly-mediated transnational controversy to entwine itself around a tradition that would carry influence for years to come.
South Africa Boycott 1964
While not serving as the host country, South Africa captured international attention as the 1963 games drew near. As it were during the era of apartheid, many nations already held considerable concerns regarding the ill treatment of non-whites in South Africa. Proposed by Norway and supported by numerous other states, the international community called for the prohibition of South African participation in the Olympics. However the IOC was not so quick to concede. Their reluctance to issue a boycott stemmed from the Olympic ideal that political actions should remain separate from international sport (Liu, 2007). Referencing rule 6.1 of the Olympic Charter, “The Olympic Games are competition between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries,” the IOC hesitated to deem cries for South African exclusion justifiable.
Yet, despite the IOC’s apolitical inclination, the Charter also explicitly states in the Fifth Fundamental Principle of Olympism that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on ground of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” With this rationale as validation, the IOC eventually agreed to ban South Africa on the basis of its discrimination against black athletes from participating as members of its Olympic team.
Worried though that the Olympics were being used as a weapon for an unrelated enterprise, the IOC attempted to remove the ban after just four years. But after thirty-two nations threatened to boycott the games, South Africa found itself once again barred and condemned for its apartheid practices (Liu, 2007). With support from the United Nations General Assembly, this ban lasted for twenty-eight years until which apartheid was abolished. Evident here, is again the inherent political nature of the Olympic Games. For even when the IOC is reluctant to assert its own influence, the Games nonetheless give considerable sway to other participating international actors.
Seoul Games 1988
In yet another surprising and controversial decision, the IOC awarded the 1988 games to South Korea despite its repressive military regime controlled by General Chun Doo-Hwan. Again, the international community questioned the appropriateness of allowing an unstable country to host the Olympics, but acknowledged the opportunity for promoting change in what normally would be an unwelcoming nation. From a domestic perspective, the South Korean government believed a successful Olympics would serve to win over the hearts of its own people as well as notify the world of its arrival as an economic power (Black & Bezanson, 2004). As alluded to time and time again, the arrival of the Olympics is ultimately a politically charged event, full of opportunity for many actors to send a resonant message throughout the globe.
In retrospect, the Seoul games would actually become a beacon of celebrated achievement for the process of democratization in South Korea. By inviting the world’s press to its doorstep, the South Korean government was ultimately forced to make significant political concessions in order to save face and prevent the broadcasting of negative imageries. In other words, international scrutiny generated by the impending Olympics served as a catalyst for peacefully displacing a military dictatorship with a “new era of multi-partyism and electoral democracy” (Black & Bezanson, 2004).
III. CASE STUDY: Holding China to Olympian Ideals
When Beijing accepted its role as Olympic host, it willingly placed itself in the international limelight. Its primary challenge stemmed from associating its closed political system with the liberal ideas of individualism, open competition, and respect for human dignity embodied by the Olympic spirit. Presented as a catch-22, China sought the Olympic spotlight to enhance its prestige, but also had to endure the scrutiny when international calls for political change were left unaddressed (Cha, 2008).
Chinese vs. Global Expectations
Because the Olympic Games present an unparalleled opportunity for the reconstruction of a nation’s global reputation, China quickly set off to confirm its status as powerhouse among the international community. However, the rest of the world had a very different goal to expose and reform China’s often questionable human rights practices. The Chinese government expected the Olympics to create a legacy of ascendency, but the scrutiny of its peers only served to undermine the foundation of its legitimacy.
As China expert Minxin Pei noted, the 2008 Games offered “nothing less than an opportunity to demonstrate China’s confidence, achievement, and status as a world power… a coming of age party.” From the Chinese perspective, the triumph associated with hosting a successful Olympics would unite the Chinese population under a banner of national pride while simultaneously asserting Communist China’s arrival as both a sports and political superpower. After the IOC made the formal decision, senior Beijing Olympic official, Wang Wei enthusiastically stated, “Winning the host rights means winning the respect, trust, and favor of the international community.” By wrapping itself in the values of the Olympic movement, China was able to portray itself not only as a rising power, but also as a “peace-loving” country (Economy&Segal, 2008). Thus, China began Olympic preparations with the expectation of validating national achievement and garnering international prestige under the veil of a “one world, one dream” philosophy.
However after the official decision, the discussion amongst other actors involved a different kind of rhetoric. IOC member Dick Pound was quoted saying, “The decision in 2001 to give the Games to China was made in the hope of improvement in human rights.” The IOC came to its consensus based on the notion its verdict would moderate the country’s authoritarian government and help bring constructive attention to the issues surrounding human rights. In linking compliance with international human rights norms to Olympian ideals, NGOs, states, transnational networks, and even individuals were provided a brief window in which they could leverage China’s Olympic accountability as a form of political pressure and human rights advancement.
Hence, the anticipated legacy varied greatly depending from where one stood. China sought to improve its international image and solidify its place as an economic and political global superpower. Meanwhile, other transnational actors sought to reveal China’s institutional inadequacies, shortcomings, and violations in the hopes of compelling more consistent behavior in the respect for international human rights law. Luo Qing, a Beijing scholar on China’s national image said, “The IOC, when it gave the Olympics to China, thought they could change China. I think the Chinese government wanted only to change the world’s image of China.” This sentiment captures the conflicting motives and political differences which served to lay the grounds for one of the most highly politicized Olympics yet.
Initial Concerns and Promises
Beginning in the host bidding process, the campaign led by Chinese officials was largely based on the implied notion that hosting the Olympics in Beijing would open the nation to public view. In an appeal to the IOC, vice president of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee Liu Jingmin explicitly stated, “By allowing Beijing to host the Games, you will help the development of human rights.” Moreover, head Olympic official Wang Wei publically articulated, “We are confident the Games coming to China will not only promote our economy, but also will enhance all social conditions, including education, health, and human rights.” These examples of Chinese declarations established a form of accountability and provided a platform for states and other advocacy groups to engage in further dialogue regarding human rights issues (Spencer, 2008).
But while these promises laid the groundwork for holding China accountable in its behavior leading up to the Olympics, they were still just words. The real concern for many other Olympic participants and transnational actors was the authenticity of China’s commitment to fulfilling these promises. Because the philosophy behind Olympism requires ethical authority in demonstrating ‘fitness’ to host the Games, Chinese preparations had to include intensive efforts of strategic image management (Rowe, 2012). Whether in sincerity or not, China thus instituted an ‘action plan’ with a series of commitments related to development, governance, the environment, and pledged to be “open in every aspect to the rest of the country and the whole world” (Bhattacharji & Zissis, 2008).
Even though these articulated commitments by the Chinese government did help pacify many critics who opposed awarding the Olympics to Beijing, the world kept a watchful eye on the nation. In the years between the IOC’s host decision and the actual opening ceremony, an unprecedented number of states and advocacy groups looked for any hint of China’s failure to fulfill Olympian ideals. If China had any dirty laundry, media from the Olympics was going to air it on the international stage.
Claiming the Chinese government had failed to uphold the fundamental principles of the Olympics, allegations of severe human rights abuse were brought to the forefront of international media. These included restricted free speech, jailing of political dissidents, the exploitation of workers as well as forced evictions, undue violence against Tibetans, and abetting the conflict in Darfur among countless others.
Scholar Anne-Marie Broudhehoux offers an explanation of this unsettling trend, attributing increased government control to the pressures accompanied by a host city’s effort to reinvent its image through social reform of discipline programs. She asserts these tactics of social beautification may “bring about a tightening of the social control apparatus and the imposition of new limits on civil liberties.” Still, others maintain Chinese human rights violations have unjustifiably gotten worse as the summer 2008 Games drew near. It has been proposed that in the attempt to implement many of IOC-mandated human rights reforms, the CCP has actually amplified it abuses by taking preemptive measures (The Olympics, 2008). In trying to uphold the “one world, one dream” philosophy, and striving to maintain its image of national unity, the CCP has taken radical actions to ensure no dissenting voices are heard.
Censorship of Media and Speech
Although the Chinese government made promises to relax restrictions on reporting, it has been accused of actually intensifying its censorship. In August 2008, PEN, the international writer’s organization, compiled a list of writers and journalists being detained and imprisoned. Most of these reporters were arrested after publishing information that cast the Chinese government in an unfavorable light. PEN stated, “There is increasing evidence of an organized effort to restrict movement of dissidents and writers to keep them from meeting freely with international observers before and during the Olympics” (Miller, 2008).
Despite Beijing’s promise to allow foreign journalists to move throughout the country, hundreds of cases of harassment, obstruction, and detention were reported. It soon became clear that this freedom did not extend to those journalists who wished to publish anything criticizing the Chinese government. While foreign journalists struggled to voice its discontent, Chinese reporters were even more so suppressed. Sources of domestic press were virtually silenced with intensified censorship of television and internet content, as well as the jamming of radio transmissions.
Crackdown on Tibet
In the months leading up to the opening ceremony, international attention turned to Tibet where monks had launched a series of peaceful demonstrations appealing for greater autonomy from Beijing. Clashes between protestors and security forces erupted, resulting the in the shooting, beating, and arresting of dissidents (Bhattacharji & Zissis, 2008). While figures are disputable, it is estimated that over a hundred protestors were left dead and hundreds more were injured (Economy & Segal, 2008). Furthermore, the government proceeded to virtually “blackout” Tibet. Reporters were banned from the region completely, telephone/internet service was interrupted, and Tibetan protestors were put on a “most wanted” list.
As facilities are erected for the arrival of the Olympics, the Chinese government has kept construction costs low by exploiting its migrant work force. Roughly 94 million workers are paid an average of $4.87 a day to labor under strenuous conditions (Broudehoux, 2007). The Wall Street Journal estimates these migrant laborers have been working around the clock in 15 hour shifts, 7 days a week, in 10,000 different sites. Denied citizenship, these men and women have no claims to subsidized housing or education for their children. “It is not uncommon to hear of workers who are owed over a year’s worth of back wages, or have been injured and received no compensation” (Broudehoux, 2007). This type of abuse and exploitation is not only reproachable in normal circumstances, but especially so in the contribution to what is supposed to be an event of the highest morals.
Taken from estimates by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction, by the year 2004, 300,000 Chinese citizens had seen their homes demolished to make way for the construction of Olympic facilities. These residents were given one month’s notice and received compensation at a fraction of their property’s true value. Those who resisted eviction often had their utilities disconnected or had such damage done to their home as to render it inhabitable. In the cases of residents who still refused to relocate, they were physically beaten or abducted from their home at night while it was demolished with all their belongings inside (Broudehoux, 2007).
Chinese corruption became apparent as local government officials collaborated with developers to execute forced evictions so that although former residents were “compensated,” the payment was often insignificant or not forthcoming (Liu, 2007). Quite unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese citizens were left homeless as a direct result of Olympic preparations.
Jailing of Political Dissidents
While protests and conflicts have arisen around almost all recent Olympics, China’s authoritarian regime has engaged in unacceptable practices of intimidation, imprisonment, and violent repression of dissenting voices (Economy & Segal, 2008). Amnesty International reports signaled Chinese authorities’ used “re-education through labor” programs to disguise the practice of imprisonment without trial. “The Chinese authorities have locked up, put under house arrest, or forcibly removed individuals they perceive may threaten the image of ‘stability and harmony’ they want to represent to the world.”
Held as “prisoners of conscious,” many activists are detained after being charged with vaguely defined crimes against national security, such as separatism, subversion, and stealing state secrets. For example, the peaceful land rights activist Yang Chunlin, was arrested and tortured for gathering 10,000 signatures on a petition opposing the Olympics and demanding redress for citizens who had been forcibly evicted. He was sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion” (Cha, 2008). Regrettably, his case is not unique. Hundreds of other activists also found themselves imprisoned or forced into programs of re-education through labor. Thus, these procedures serve as a government tool to polish Beijing’s image of unity before the Games began.
Abetting Sudanese Conflict
Against international opinion, China remained Sudan’s largest supplier of arms and top importer of oil. Even though these weapons and funding often went straight to the Khartuoum regime to be used against the Sudanese people of Darfur, China refused to acknowledge its involvement in the conflict. When questioned about motive and concern for human rights, Chinese officials responded simply that “Chinese aid is free of political conditionality and serving the interests of Africa and China” (Cha, 2008). Again, even with the public eye drawn to China’s questionable behavior, the state maintained a position of strategic self-interest.
Mechanisms of Pressure
State Boycotts and Resolutions
In the wake of extreme measures to suppress any form of antigovernment protest, world leaders have faced mounting pressure to take some form of action expressing their admonishment of Chinese violations. In largely a symbolic act, German Chancellor Merkel and British Prime Minister Brown said they will boycott the opening ceremonies. President Bush declined to engage in such tactics, and instead had the U.S. express its disapproval though Congressional measures. The House not only formed a “Tibet Caucus” to begin debating actions aimed at holding China accountable, but also passed a resolution calling for China to immediately stop supporting Sudan.
Torch Relay Protests
In accordance with tradition, the Olympic Torch began its symbolic journey around the world, passing through major cities before arriving at the door of the host nation. However, what was intended by Chinese officials as a “journey of harmony,” soon transformed into a lightning rod for political controversy (Bhattacharji & Zissis, 2008). Taking advantage of the pre-determined route and extensive media coverage, human rights protestors organized countless demonstrations to publically denounce China’s transgressions. In some instances, the protestors became so agitated that they actually attacked the Torch. Olympic officials had to cancel some parts of the relay after being forced to douse the flame several times and carry it on a bus to avoid anti-China protestors
Global Media: Reports and Propaganda
Primarily propelled by transnational advocacy groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, many anti-China campaigns gained international popularity leading up to the Olympics. Through the dissemination of informational reports and emotive propaganda, organizations such as these were successfully able to draw global attention to previously overlooked cases of human rights abuse in China. Images like the one depicting the Olympic circles as handcuffs quickly gained global recognition. These types of visuals soon became the symbol of the anti-China movement. Transnational advocacy groups applied pressure by not only calling for Chinese reform, but also by providing a banner under which protestors could unite in their efforts.
Denunciation from High Profile Individuals
Political movements need not always be promoted by political figures. In recent years, more and more high profile individuals have begun expressing their personal support for various causes. During the Beijing Olympics, former actress and current goodwill ambassador of UNICEF, Mia Farrow, dubbed the 2008 games the “Genocide Games” hoping to shame China for its ongoing support of the conflict in Darfur. World renowned producer Steven Spielberg also withdrew his service as an artistic advisor for the Olympic ceremonies, claiming China should be doing more to end the continued human suffering (Bhattacharji & Zissis, 2008). Despite the lack of Farrow and Spielberg’s political authority, their opinions on such matters continue to hold sway over the general public. In essence, their individual calls for political change became resonant messages and a legitimate source of pressure.
In the wake of international criticism, threatened boycotts, and Torch Relay protests, there has been a counter wave of anti-Western rhetoric coming out of China. Interestingly, such sentiments did not come just from the government. What may come as a shock to many human rights activists, a large number of the Chinese youth have come to the defense of their nation’s reputation. Rather than feeling vindicated, Chinese people ironically felt stung by harsh international criticism of their government, believing the international community was unfairly “demonizing” China.
A spokeswoman of the Chinese foreign ministry defended her country saying, “A few organizations are attaching some topics to the Olympic Games to slur China’s image and put pressure on the Chinese government” adding, “No country in the world is perfect in human rights issues.” Promoters of human rights should not underestimate the impact of such nationalist attitudes. When the sentiments of a populace reflect that of its government, there are very few benefits of criticism and mechanisms of shame.
Referencing the counterproductive nature of the Torch Relay protests, Richard McGregor of the Financial Times warned, “Demonstrators should not delude themselves that they are giving China a bloody nose along the way. The opposite may be true. Such demonstrations only strengthen the bond between sections of the ruling party and the most rabid nationalistic elements in the country.” This seemed to be situation in China. Rather than shame mobilizing the Chinese government to change its ways, it mobilized its people to unite under national pride and legitimized claims of attempted Western imperialism.
In what many saw as a landmark change, in 2004, the Tenth National People’s Congress adopted an amendment to the constitution requiring the state to respect and safeguard human rights. This institutionalization of human rights norms sent an encouraging message to activists hoping to finally witness China’s maturity. It was widely anticipated this momentous change would set China down the path to eventual rule-consistent behavior.
In the following years leading up to the Olympic Games, it should not be overlooked China made tactical concessions on several human rights issues raised by the international community. In 2006, critics of Chinese support in the Darfur conflict were moderately pacified when China removed Sudan from its list of countries with preferred trade status, and also began pressuring the Sudanese government to accept the deployment of over 20,000 UN and African troops in Darfur. Nonetheless, skeptics still questioned the motive behind these concessions. “China’s shifting diplomacy reflects not a fundamental change in its values, but a new perception of its national interests” (Bhattacharji & Zissis, 2008). Unfortunately, while China may have aligned its foreign policy to better reflect international attitudes, it was unable to convince the world of its commitment to ending the conflict in Darfur.
The year 2007 also appeared to bring more progress in the fight for human rights. The Chinese government began to relax restrictions placed on reporters, allowing foreign press to travel freely conducting interviews, and allowing access to previously blocked websites and blogs. However, the government still found ways to dilute its commitment to “openness.” In addition to shutting down blogs deemed too radical, bloggers called “50 Centers” were paid by the government to pose as ordinary citizens to monitor content and post pro-government comments (Wade, 2009).
Also in that year, the government made several concessions they knew would create a high media profile. For example, the release of Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher, after three years of imprisonment for leaking “fraudulent” information about the inner-workings of top Chinese leadership and disclosing state secrets, became an international sensation. In another example, the CCP granted permission to the mother of a man killed in the Tiananmen Square Massacre to publically mark the anniversary of his death in front of television cameras. Public acts such as these were indeed step in the right direction for human rights, but were ultimately tainted by the mark of insincerity and artificiality.
Moreover, as one of its few promises to the IOC, China consented to reform its capital punishment laws. While it did actually decrease its use of the death penalty by requiring higher courts to validate sentences, China remains the world’s leader in executions (Spencer, 2008). To fulfill its pledge of ‘openness,’ the CCP also created special zones designated for protesters to peacefully voice their opinions. However, of the 77 applications that were filed, none were approved and many petitioners soon found themselves sentenced to time in re-education through labor programs (Wade, 2009). In response to the global criticism of Tibetan oppression, the government conceded to renew meetings with envoys of the Dali Lama. But as expected, these were mostly unproductive, and served mostly as a superficial show of cooperation.
Considering the continued cases of human rights abuse in conjunction with the limited tactical concessions made by the government, there remains an overall sentiment that China remains the same non-democratic, suppressive regime. Beneath the rhetoric, “one can discern a deliberate but unspoken strategy of selective accommodation and moderation to address all the pressures that Beijing faces.” The changes were clearly very calculated, designed to gain maximum publicity, but not intended to institute any real fundamental change (Cha, 2008). Hence the question remains whether these small acts of accommodation ultimately further the progress of human rights in China or rewarding human rights violators for simply “playing the game.”
In the case with China, the argument for cultural relativism and its impact on state compliance deserves special consideration. Revealing many of the differences between Eastern and Western values, the Beijing Olympics showcased the counter-productivity of pressure methods when little thought was given for how they may be perceived from the domestic level. Exemplified by heightened nationalism, although outside pressures attempted to reorient Chinese priorities for the benefit of the people, the population saw only an attack on their culture.
In a society where modesty and deference to authority are highly valued, punitive criticism of the ruling party is not well received. In this instance, attempts to shame China simply granted authoritarian elites the opportunity to frame accusations as Western imperialism, deflecting attention away from their violations and justifying strict policies through economic achievement. So that instead of reacting in shame, Beijing adopted a stance of defiance claiming, “China cannot copy the mode of human rights development of the developed Western countries, nor can it copy and the methods of other developing countries. China can only start from its own reality and explore a road with its own characteristics” (Wachman, 2001). Thus, it is not surprising attempts force China into compliance through mechanisms of shame only resulted in feeble tactical concessions rather than more fundamental change.
Another important factor to consider in the effectiveness of pressure mechanisms is the target state’s general dependency on other nations. For example, sanctions may prove be most effective when used against states that are materially vulnerable and reliant on foreign aid for the success of its economy. Or in the case of target states that are morally vulnerable, meaning maintaining international reputation is a top priority, efforts of public shaming may induce greater results.
Looking specifically at China, neither one of these conditions seemed to apply. Recently rising to the level of a global economic powerhouse, China became virtually immune to any threats of monetary means. Hence, countries did not even attempt to impose sanctions. Considering that years ago, a much weaker China was able to survive Western sanctions after its 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protestors, there was no reason to expect sweeping changes to take place now. China is simply too much of a power player in the international arena to bend to the wills of other states much less advocacy groups.
Furthermore, China’s moral vulnerability was limited to the international prestige and recognition it hoped to gain for its economic achievement. China was not looking for Western approval of its cultural values. More concerned with protecting its interests in Tibet and Sudan, China only showed slight forms of compliance after international reproach. To this end, boycotts and public admonishment yielded few changes in China’s human rights practices. In truth, these forms of pressure did little to provide any leverage. “Boycotts generally work when their targets are heavily reliant upon the support of others. The reality is that the world is now currently reliant on China” (The Olympics, 2008).
Stance of the IOC
One contextual factor that has most likely influenced the progress made in human rights reform is the political disposition of the International Olympic Committee. For while the IOC has historically called for strong compliance of selected host countries, the 2008 committee operated under newly elected president Jacques Rogge, took a very hands-off approach in its treatment of Beijing. Defending its position by arguing that the IOC is not a political body, but rather a sports organization, Rogge refused to use much of the political leverage the committee may have had over China’s behavior.
Sophie Richardson, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, complained the group repeatedly expressed its concerns to the IOC regarding Chinese violations, but that officials were unresponsive. Criticizing Rogge, she noted how he “loved to stand up and say that the Olympics are about sports and not politics, but when it suits him to do so, he wants to try and take credit for claiming the Olympics have opened China to the world.” While not declaring the political stance of the IOC as the lynchpin of all reform, it certainly is a factor that greatly tips the scale in favor of one side or another.
China’s experience with the Olympics and human rights is by no means an isolated case. This study illuminates larger implications for human rights as a whole. In demonstrating numerous examples of the use of information, symbolic, leverage, and accountability politics in conjunction with one another, we are provided a valuable glimpse into the reactionary behavior of transgressor states. From my research, I conclude the Olympics were valuable in pressuring China to make tactical concessions, but that these changes were superficial and largely taken in the Chinese effort to portray itself as a powerful member of the elite international community.
Moreover, this study lays the foundation for future discussion regarding the often ambiguous factors which affect state response. Although the context of each human rights issue is quite different, there is still value in assessing the influential properties of factors such state vulnerability and cultural relativism. The generality of these ideas allows such findings to then be transferred and compared among multiple studies of human rights movements.
This case analysis also offers an example of the various mechanisms which may be applicable in regards to the upcoming Sochi Games in Russia. Similar to the run up of the 2008 Games, international critics are already finding fault with Russia’s targeting and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. Again, the world is watching to see what role the IOC takes influencing human rights compliance. But whether they maintain a neutral stance as with China, or choose to leverage their authority, the international community is waiting to see Russia’s response to the impending forms of political pressure.
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