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Olympic Boycott Fantasies
How to Deal With China

Game on

For once, I'm in complete agreement with the Bush administration including, amazingly, its choice of words: Boycotting the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics would be a "cop out." It's not that President Bush shouldn't have better things to do than watch a fireworks show in the world's biggest police state while hundreds of thousands of families are tossed out of homes and jobs back home and tens of thousands continue to lose lives, limbs and loved ones in the various countries he's invaded. But it's only polite for this subprime president to pay tribute to one of his chief creditors. And let's face it: A Bush away from Washington is a less toxic Bush.

Figurehead outrage would ring false, anyway. The United States is by far China's biggest trade partner. Germany and Great Britain are in China's top 10. A few months ago French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao were photographed smiling and clinking champagne glasses like newlyweds over a $30 billion aircraft, telecommunication and nuclear technology deal. Germany's Volkswagen is about to overtake General Motors as the biggest foreign-car manufacturer in China. Britain still acts as if Hong Kong is a suburb of London. Yet the French, British and German government chiefs want to salve their conscience by boycotting the Olympics' opening ceremony. Thanks for reminding us that pretension is still Europe's biggest export, the International Olympic Committee among them.

 

The committee knew, while it was being wined and bribed in Beijing in February 2001, that awarding the games to China was indefensible. The very week the committee was in Beijing, China was slamming human rights advocates in concentration camps to eliminate any chance that they might cross paths with committee members. Heaven forbid committee members should be reminded of China's labor-camp archipelago, which political prisoners keep full, and that executions are so common (10,000 to 15,000 a year) as to make Texas' and Florida's death machines seem European in comparison. That's before considering religious repression, environmental devastation and the forced relocation of millions; the widespread use of torture to obtain confessions and fight "deviant behavior"; and, of course, Tibet, that beleaguered country without a country alternately smashed up by Britain in the early 20th century, shoved around by a secret CIA war in the 1950s, and locked down by China since.

For all that, the Olympic committee overlooked Paris and Toronto and awarded the 2008 games to Beijing. Last week, Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge snared himself a gold for collaborationist hypocrisy by conceding that the summer games faced a "crisis" -- not because of China's tanks in Tibet, not because of China's silencers, torturers and executioners, but because of those protesters interfering with the Olympic torch's ridiculous prance around the world. The protesters themselves are forgetting that "the zillion dollar Olympics," as The Economist dubbed them, aren't about morals or trees or political ideal or even athletics. Actual competitions are like what's left of newsy material in too many newspapers -- decorative frames for the advertising.

That's not to say that there isn't a powerful and responsible way to give the Beijing games their due. China wants to use the games to pretend it's an equal among civilized nations. Instead of playing into China's wishes, NBC, which plunked $900 million to broadcast these games, should use its platform to give China a two-week version of "60 Minutes." Not that the network would go for something like this. Its programming aims to deliver exploitable stupor to advertisers, not moral stimulants to lawmakers.

But imagine. Instead of wasting our time with those rosewater features about athletes' personal survival tales, all of which sound the same, all of which would sound insultingly narcissistic in China's context, tell us about the water and food rationing for the millions of farmers around Beijing so the games can lush on, tell us about Beijing's once-great Chaobai River, dried-out by overuse and artificially refilled during the games with water from a plundered aquifer, tell us about the jailing of human rights leader Hu Jia, for "incitement to subvert state power," tell us about the confiscation of Muslims' passports in Xinjiang to prevent pilgrimages to Mecca, give us a few snapshots into the lives of some of the 4 million forced to relocate from areas around Three Gorges Dam, the world's biggest hydroelectric power project.

By all means honor the competitions by showing them in full (rather than just their American shreds), but honor Chinese athletes, too, by honoring the truth of what they live with. And no, the Olympics aren't just about the athletes. They never are. This year's edition is about selling China. The best way to protest is not to buy in but to turn the Olympics' table and give China the international black eye it deserves. Let viewers feel a fraction of discomfort in their plush chairs. It's the least they can do, considering the plushless repressions 1.3 billion Chinese live with every day.

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