Unjust Chinese policies cannot be divorced from Olympics


OPINION:No matter how we engage with the Beijing Games, sport and politics always mix, writes Joe Humphries.

ONE UNCOMFORTABLE effect of globalisation is that we can't pretend to be ignorant of other people's woes. The spread of the internet and 24/7 transnational communications means we now know what goes on in faraway places in graphic, if not harrowing, detail.

George Orwell saw the condition emerging 60-odd years ago when he wrote: "We have developed a sort of compunction which our grandparents did not have, an awareness of the enormous injustice and misery of the world, and a guilt-stricken feeling that one ought to be doing something about it."

When Orwell penned these words, he was questioning the morality of devoting oneself "as single-mindedly as Joyce or Henry James" to a life of literature. Today we worry about such things as spending two weeks watching a sports event.

Thanks to our elevated awareness of injustice, we can no longer wholeheartedly enjoy occasions like the Olympics. Merely observing some of the Beijing Games throws up an array of ethical dilemmas, such as: Are we letting the Tibetans down by sending our national team into competition? Can we stand in solidarity with Chinese pro-democracy activists while taking pleasure in the synchronised swimming?

How exactly should we engage with the Olympics? Discussion on the issue has produced two polarising stances. The first is the head-in-the-sand strategy that is predicated on the infantile argument that sport and politics do not mix.

Sport and politics do mix, and to deny it is mere expediency. Even Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Council (IOC), has admitted as much. While he said China had given no "contractual promise" to address human rights concerns, there had been a commitment - or what Rogge dubbed a "moral engagement" - on the matter.

The second - and contrasting - position is to say "boycott the Games". This overlooks the potentially beneficial effects of China staging the Olympics. There has been a marginal opening-up of Chinese society in the run-up to the Games, albeit some reforms - such as a temporary relaxation in press reporting restrictions - are somewhat superficial.

What possible stance can we take between these two extremes? Clearly, any form of protest, no matter how measured, will have the capacity to cause offence.

Chinese government officials are a sensitive bunch, as witnessed last April when the Chinese ambassador to Ireland walked out of the Green Party's annual conference over John Gormley's description of Tibet as a "country".

But what of the offence China is causing us at present on an array of issues, including - to cite but one pertinent example - Burma?

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin recently described the Burmese military government as a "ruthless" regime which "has turned its back on its people". The Government has supported economic sanctions against the rogue state, including an EU arms embargo. It has also repeatedly called for the release of Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was honoured some years ago with the Freedom of Dublin City.

In contrast, China has repeatedly blocked action at the UN Security Council aimed at securing her release. It has secured new trade contracts with Burma since the EU sanctions were introduced, and it continues to resist any controls over weapons exports to the state.

Burma was given a glimmer of hope last October when China backed a security council resolution calling for "genuine dialogue" with Suu Kyi.

Ireland, and the EU, should not now let the opportunity slip. And here, perhaps Minister for Sport Martin Cullen - who is attending the Games on the Government's behalf - could play a role.

When the "Elders" - a conflict-resolution organisation comprising former world leaders including Nelson Mandela and Mary Robinson - was founded last year it instituted a running practice of having an empty chair at its meeting table. The chair was left vacant for Suu Kyi, ensuring her plight would remain high on the organisation's list of priorities.

If the EU is serious about tackling the issue of Burma it could do worse than introduce a similar practice at its foreign policy meetings. Better still, it could start when it meets informally at the Beijing National Stadium on August 8th, the 20th anniversary of suppression of Burma's democratic uprising.

It is expected every EU government will be represented at the opening ceremony, each one with a trailing entourage. The least this collective entity can do as it watches the spectacle - on our behalf - is leave one seat free for Suu Kyi.

If the Chinese government takes offence it should be told firmly but politely that we, too, are capable of being offended.


Joe Humphreys is an Irish Timesjournalist and the author of Foul Play: What's Wrong With Sport