Criticizing China and the Olympic Torch Protests
As the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing draws near, countless news organizations and bloggers have been covering the controversy over protests surrounding the Olympic Torch relays that have taken place all over the world, including its only U.S. stop in San Francisco.
I have previously stated my position on this complicated issue by trying to take a moderate approach: I do not support calls for a blanket or total boycott of Chinese goods or other products, but I wholeheartedly support keeping the pressure on China (and the corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics) to improve its record on human rights, environmental protection, safe products, and freedom for Tibet.
This particular issue has become rather prominent here at UMass Amherst recently, where there was a demonstration on campus that pitted pro-Chinese graduate and undergraduate students against pro-Free Tibet and other students opposed to China:
"We're in support of peaceful coexistence and against the violence and media distortion in Tibet," said Gorge Liu, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. "It is reported as if the Chinese police are creating the violence, when in fact it is the civilians."
Waving the Chinese flag and chanting, "One China," and "Go Beijing," the participants handed out leaflets with what they described as educational material on Tibet to passing students. . . .
"We're talking about current issues in Tibet, where people are getting killed for speaking the truth," said Lhakyi Lokyitsang, vice president of the student organization. "Tibetans in Tibet are not only protesting, but they're risking their lives to do it."
I was not on campus that day and therefore did not witness the protests, but I understand that this is an emotional issue for members of both sides. This is also an issue that deeply divides the Asian American community in general, particularly Chinese Americans.
Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams and an icon of social justice and activism in the Asian American community, wrote about why she will participate by carrying the Olympic Torch when it reaches San Francisco:
Unfortunately the calls to boycott the Olympics and to label everything about China "evil" can only isolate China and the United States from each other. China is not a monolith and blanket condemnations of China and its people are as simplistic as blaming all Americans for the U.S. human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Such rhetoric, however, is driving many Chinese bloggers into a nationalistic response. Attitudes like these hark back to the Cold War days, when the U.S. and China were completely shut off from each other. . . .
Someday China will join the United States as a world superpower – but the American and Chinese people do not have to retreat back to those Cold War corners. The world will be safer if China, the United States and other countries can address human rights and other critical issues in the community of nations and peoples, not in isolation.
This article includes comments from readers who support Helen Zia's position and from those who are critical of it. These reactions sum up the range of opinions that many Asian Americans and others have on this issue, and reflect the level of emotion that is involved.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is one attributed to Bill Cosby: "I don't know what's the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody." At the risk of contradicting that maxim, I again will try to assert a moderate position. I deeply respect Helen Zia and agree with her stance that isolating and a mass boycott of China is not the answer -- I believe that the best change happens through engagement and inclusion, not separation and discrimination.
At the same time, I support and defend the rights of China's critics to express their opposition and to use protests against the Olympics and the Torch Relay to urge China to improve its human rights abuses and to allow Tibet to become independent. I support their use of the Olympics as a legitimate forum within which to engage and criticize the Chinese government.
However, expressions of opposition have a limit -- I have no problem with mass protests and demonstrations, but I do not support threats of violence or physical attacks against people like Helen Zia who disagree with them and have chosen to participate in the torch relay.
This is clearly an emotional issue for many of us, but I hope that members from both sides remember that freedom of expression also entails responsibility of expression. People can have any opinion on this issue that they want, but participating in a democratic society also means exercising these freedoms appropriately.
This is also what sociologists can contribute to the debate: a balanced -- but not necessarily a completely impartial -- look at many sides of an issue in order to create proposals that can help to bridge those divides.