Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Olympics and Politics

A recent editorial in the New York Times deplores the worsening human rights record of the Chinese government. Latest examples are a long list of instructions for foreign and domestic visitors to the upcoming Olympic games forbidding anything remotely political; the persecution of Chinese lawyers defending Tibetans; the arrest of Chinese parents protesting peacefully against a corrupt government whose shoddily constructed schools collapsed during the recent earthquake. Hundreds of children died in these schools.

In the same editorial, the Times approves of the Olympic Committee's prohibition against political demonstrations during
the games. "We respect the goal of trying to put aside divisions while celebrating a common humanity" says the Times editorial writer.

Many people think that the Olympic games are not the place for politics. They should be all about sport and nothing else.

But think of what we put aside when we "put aside divisions" or when we refuse to engage in politics. We refuse to look at the real human misery in China. The government keeps close watch on its people; protesters end up in prison. It arrested the parents whose children died during the earthquake because of poor quality construction of school buildings. Corrupt government officials pocketed some of the money destined for school construction. The shoddy buildings they did erect were not earthquake proof and children died. The grieving parents protested and were jailed.

All of this is terrible enough but think about the wider effects of this massive repression: the millions of Chinese who are intimidated and do not protest poor wages, poor working conditions, or the tyranny of petty government officials.

At issue is not merely the "poor human rights record of the Chinese government;" at issue are the suffering and misery of large numbers of ordinary people. If most Chinese were happy with their lives, if they were hopeful for themselves and the future of their children, why would the government need to employ a large army of secret police to supervise citizens? The reign of terror imposed by authoritarian governments, like that of China, is made necessary by the misery of large numbers of ordinary people.

The advice to put aside politics during the Olympics says "forget about the parents who lost their children in shoddily constructed schools. Forget about millions of people deprived of even half-way decent lives. Forget unsanitary slums and their diseased and malnourished inhabitants.What matters now is who can run faster, jump higher or throw the javelin farther. Don't think about freedom loving men and women, languishing in prison. Don't think about millions of families overworked and undernourished. Let's just celebrate a common humanity."

Yes, by all means, let's celebrate a common humanity. How do we do that? By ignoring fellow humans whose lives are made miserable by their government? The poverty and misery of millions of Chinese are not suspended for the Olympics. Most of them will have to go to their workplaces and work long hours under hard conditions for very little money. Should we ignore their pain while we cheer for our team?

The truth is, of course, that ignoring oppression and suffering in China has nothing much to do with "celebrating a common humanity." US and other foreign corporations are making money by the bushel basket in China because wages are miserably low and workers who protest end up in prison. The human rights record the NY Times deplores makes lots of money for US corporations. They like the human rights record of the Chinese government because it maintains low wages.

And the NY Times, always on the side of business, may deplore that human rights record of the Chinese government but is quick to add that we should not do anything about it. After all the misery of the Chinese is the price they must pay for our prosperity.