Beijing: Boycott or Engagement?

Recent events have put China in the spotlight once again as an oppressive regime that abused human rights and what not. China’s friendliness with Sudan, their alleged oppression of minorities in Tibet, and the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing have led numerous western figures to denounce the regime, protest the Olympic torch relay and even call for boycotts of the Olympics. There is no easy answer, but let’s get real for a moment.

I don’t believe the Tibet situation has been handled very well. China should long ago have taken up on the offer to meet the Dalai Lama. He is not a separatist, and he could be the key to a peaceful normalisation if only Beijing would swallow their pride and start talking to him. While calling the crackdowns in Lhasa genocide is surely exaggerated, there probably have been mishandlings of the minority. In principle, Tibet should have the right to declare independence, but that may not even be the wish of the majority – the Dalai Lama does not call for independence, only greater autonomy.

I am also of the opinion that China (as many other nations) could do more to pressure Sudan in the case of Darfur. We should continue trying to convince China that action here is needed. Hardly a cause for boycott, though.

When it comes to freedom of speech in China, I generally take the optimistic stand that quite a lot is actually tolerated. I do not know, however, whether I would be able to write so openly on this blog if I were in China. (To any PRC readers: I’d love to hear your comments, if possible.)

These disagreements with China are to some a cause for boycotting the whole or parts of the Olympic Games. While the Olympics are a huge media event, it is still a very cheap shot for western politicians wanting to look good and human rights-oriented. The reality is that nobody can foresee a regular economic boycott – this would not be affordable to any western economy, especially not under the current downturn. Bashing the Chinese now is a hollow call with fairly few consequences.

Some then would argue that greater measures are needed. Michael D. Peabody writes today on the Spectrum Blog that free trade with China has not, as previously thought, lead to improvements on human rights, and that “as an individual consumer you do have the choice to effect a positive change in China, and you can vote with your wallet.”

I disagree. I think that human rights, while still not equal to Western Europe or America, have improved in China. And no matter what, we may never agree on which rights are fundamental. America historically have a tendency to promote on democracy and freedom of speech, while Europe is more focused on social security and living standards. Yes, China may lag behind in democracy, but their progress over the last decades in living standards, economic freedoms, quality of life, and also freedom of religion are staggering.

Furthermore, history should teach us that boycotts rarely actually give the wanted results. Think of Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, or even the Mohammad crisis. Economic sanctions sound nice and peaceful, but usually fail to deliver. There are things that we may disagree on with China, and they should not be overlooked. However, as stated previously on this blog, I believe engagement is a much more worthwhile option than boycott.

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