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An Olympian echo

Parallels between Beijing 2008 and Berlin 1936 are hard to miss. Once again the world is taking the shortsighted view and is being blind to the suppression of Tibetans, writes Seema Goswami.
None | By Seema Goswami
UPDATED ON APR 12, 2008 11:10 AM IST

It’s a situation we know well. A totalitarian State that suppresses dissent is about to host the Olympics. Though there have been murmurs about the moral illegitimacy of its totalitarian culture, other countries are reluctant to offend its unsmiling dictator. Those who oppose the regime point to its ruthless suppression — victimisation even — of m inority rights. To allow the Olympics to go ahead, they argue, would be to allow the totalitarian dictatorship to use the Games to showcase its so-called achievements to the world. Minority rights and the freedom of speech will not be mentioned — because they do not exist. Instead the world will be asked to hail the emergence of a major new player on the global stage.

Faced with this situation, what should any moral, democratic society do?

If you answered: ‘Go ahead and attend because the regime has done nothing to harm us,’ you would be giving exactly the same answer as most of the world.

Except that it’s not 2008. It’s not the Beijing Olympics. It’s not the Chinese dictatorship. It’s not the suppression of the rights of Tibetans or the drive to make their culture extinct.

It’s 1936. It’s the Berlin Olympics. It’s Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship.

It’s the suppression of the rights of Jews and the drive to rid the world of Jewish culture.

Who believes now that the world made the right choice in 1936 by attending the Berlin Olympics and allowing Hitler to showcase his nasty Third Reich to the world? It was the legitimacy he received from the triumph of these Games that allowed Hitler to tell his people that the world had accepted Germany as a global player. And from that triumph came even more persecution of the Jews — and ultimately, the Holocaust.

The parallels with China in 2008 are impossible to miss. Once again the world is taking the shortsighted view that because individual countries themselves have no problem with Beijing, we should be blind to the suppression of democratic rights and the murders of Tibetans that characterise today’s China.

The world was wrong in 1936. And it is wrong now. Even if Hitler hadn’t turned around and attacked all the countries that marched past him (England, France and eventually, America), it would still have been right to have turned him into an international pariah. At least then some of the millions of Jews who perished in his gas ovens might not have lost their lives.

So it is with China. Ever since the world was outraged by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Beijing has followed a policy that is so duplicitous that it has even got a name — ‘the Chinese model’ — to characterise its hypocrisy. The essence of the Chinese model is to liberalise economically while refusing to grant any liberal rights politically. Moreover, by inviting foreign investment and by offering itself up as a market for Western goods, it has given the powerful countries of the West a stake in keeping this undemocratic regime in power. Sadly, the Chinese model has worked all too well.

Hence, the current hypocrisy. Even if you reject the parallels with 1936 — though I don’t see how you can — there are other parallels that expose the world’s double standards. Take the United States, current cheerleader for China (as so many important Americans were for Hitler in 1936). The US had no hesitation in refusing to engage with China on the sporting field till a ping-pong tour broke the ice in 1971. What was the difference between China’s pre-1971 democratic record and its current totalitarianism? None at all. But the Americans changed their views because Washington needed Beijing to counter Moscow and because of economic reasons. Morality — the ostensible pretext for the pre-1971 boycott — had nothing to do with it.

Take another example. In 1980, the Americans led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. What had the Russians done that was so bad? Well, they had invaded Afghanistan. And America’s heart bled so much for the poor Afghans that it couldn’t possibly engage with Russia. (What a shame then that two decades later America had to launch its own invasion of Afghanistan.) And why doesn’t America’s heart bleed for the poor Tibetans? Well, because they aren’t strategically important. The Indian response to the Beijing Olympics is marked by similar hypocrisy. It is hard to have any respect for the players in this sordid drama (with the honourable exception of Bhaichung Bhutia).

What can one say about the Indian Olympic Association which for decades lectured the world about boycotting South Africa on grounds of morality but is now eager to go to Beijing for India’s four-yearly humiliation? How can it now say that sport and politics do not mix? It is morality and the IOA that do not mix.

What about the torch runners? Aamir Khan is a national joke because of his desire to have it both ways. But what of Kiran Bedi who says that she won’t run because of excessive security? Of all the reasons, this must be the most pathetic, especially coming from a former policewoman. What of Leander Paes who says that the Olympic spirit and the Tibetan cause are two separate issues?

Oh yeah, Sherlock? We’d never have worked that out on our own. But these individuals are merely symbols of a greater global hypocrisy, of an unwillingness to stand for other people and a desire to look only to our own interests.

An Olympic boycott makes sense because it is non-violent and non-intrusive. It allows us to stand up for human rights and to strike a blow at the heart of the world’s most totalitarian regime without firing a single shot or harming a single Chinese citizen.

It is the kind of protest that Gandhiji would have advocated. Sadly, the world is repeating the mistakes of 1936. And Gandhiji’s own country has forsaken his message and his methods.

Seema Goswami writes the Sunday column, Spectator, in Brunch.

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