By Roland Watson
March 29, 2008

The opening of the Beijing Games is now just over four months away. This article examines activist efforts to influence the Chinese government using the Olympics as a pressure point.

Because of China’s complicity in so many different human rights atrocities, a wide variety of advocacy groups and movements are now involved. This initiative has become so complex – it is changing day by day – that it is difficult to evaluate its effectiveness. This extends both to tactics, what has and has not been tried, and their relative impact, and also the overall desired response: if there has been a willingness by China – and other nations – to change their positions and behavior.

A basic distinction is between those groups that are using the Olympics simply as a means to highlight China’s behavior, versus others who are calling for an outright boycott. The effort began with a March 2007 article by Mia and Ronan Farrow in the Wall Street Journal, on behalf of Darfur. While this article, The Genocide Olympics, had a strong impact – it was widely publicized and led China to appoint a special envoy to Sudan – it did not call for a boycott. Similarly, the Dalai Lama, speaking on behalf of Tibet, said that China is entitled to host the Games

Many other groups, in support of Darfur, Tibet and also Burma, denounce China as the host, saying it is effectively a repeat of 1936, when the Nazis held the Games in Berlin. They are calling for a boycott.

A boycott, though, is not as simple as it seems. There are a number of different possibilities. The basic meaning is that national teams would not participate. But, while this sends the strongest signal, it is not the only option. Teams could also refuse to participate in the opening ceremony, and foreign political leaders could refuse to attend the Games.

There are also boycotts at the athlete level, by individuals who refuse to compete. Athletes who do participate can create pressure as well, by doing such things as individually avoiding the opening ceremony, sending a protest signal when receiving medals, and by criticizing China and also the Game’s corporate sponsors during press interviews.

The people of the world can protest as well, by not attending the Games, by not watching them on television, and by boycotting the products of the sponsors.


The most significant news related to China and the Olympics, of course, has been with Tibet. In 1959, there was a popular uprising in Tibet that was crushed by the People's Liberation Army. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were murdered. In March, on the 49th anniversary of the uprising, 600 monks demonstrated in Lhasa. Other Tibetans joined the protest, with some attacking the businesses of Chinese immigrants. The Chinese government then declared a "people's war" against the Tibetans, and launched a harsh crackdown. The protests spread to other Tibetan areas, and were similarly met with force. At the time of writing, it is believed that over 130 protestors have been killed, and hundreds if not thousands arrested. The protests and repression are ongoing, and China has imposed a media blackout.

At the same time, Tibetan monks in Dharmsala, India, began a trek to Tibet, planning to arrive for the opening of the Olympics. India blocked the march, and arrested over 100 of the monks, who then initiated a hunger strike. Other Tibetans restarted the march from a different location.

Protests then spread around the world. In Nepal, hundreds of Tibetan refugees and monks were beaten by baton-wielding police and arrested. In the U.K., Tibetan nuns toured the country, singing songs that they wrote while political prisoners in Drapchi Prison in Lhasa. In Greece, activists from Reporters Without Borders and Students for a Free Tibet disrupted the beginning of the Olympics torch relay. There are sure to protests at every stage of the route. Also, Taiwan refused to allow the torch to pass through its territory. Nepal, though, has banned climbers from its side of Mt. Everest during the period the torch is to be carried there, to deter such protests.


China's response has been belligerent if not rabid. It is blaming the Tibetans – the victims – for wanting to be free. The Chinese dictators are also demanding that countries on the torch route suppress the protests. Free Tibet websites, including Students for a Free Tibet, which also held a protest on Mt. Everest in April 2007, have been attacked with viruses. Chinese people also called their offices and shouted obscenities.

(Dictator Watch has recently experienced virus and spam attacks as well, although these could be from Burma.)

In China itself, a number of human rights activists have been arrested. Yang Chunlin, who gathered 10,000 signatures for an open letter that declared, "We want human rights, not the Olympics," was sentenced to five years in prison. China also announced a terrorism threat from the separatist movement in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), although this has not been confirmed and could well be a lie. Live TV will be banned from Tiananman Square during the Games.

The Chinese people appear to be swallowing the dictatorship's nationalist propaganda. There was a strong reaction on Chinese blogs when the singer Bjork shouted, "Tibet! Tibet!," at the end of her recent Shanghai concert. This implies that while the Olympics are providing significant traction for the Free Tibet movement, there is little impact for the cause of liberty in China itself. When Deng Xiaoping changed course and decided to promote capitalism, following the massacre at Tiananmen in 1989, this effectively undercut China's own pro-democracy movement. Coupled with a systematic nationalist propaganda assault since then, the Chinese people, at least regarding freedom (there are protests over other issues), appear once again to be cowed.


For Darfur, Mia Farrow's campaign led Stephen Spielberg to end his association with the Games. DreamforDarfur.org last year completed a symbolic torch relay, which visited countries that have experienced genocide. The goal was to publicize China's complicity in the genocide now underway in Darfur. Activists are also focusing on the Olympics' corporate sponsors. SaveDarfur.org is running a campaign called Turn Off for Darfur. They are asking the public to pledge not to watch sponsor ads during the Games and instead to tune in to a live broadcast from a Darfur refugee camp, hosted by Ms. Farrow.

In support of this, Dream for Darfur issued a report card last November on the main sponsors, on their efforts, or lack thereof, to influence China on Sudan. Protests at the companies' headquarters are planned. (Tibetan activists are organizing such protests as well.) The main sponsors, known as Worldwide Olympic Partners, and who paid China at least $100 million each, are: Coca-Cola, Atos Origin, General Electric, Kodak, Lenovo, Manulife, McDonald's, Omega/Swatch, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa.

The sponsors' reaction so far has been to try to mollify the activists, without angering China. They are making contingency plans to cut advertising and press conferences during the game, if their sponsorship becomes a commercial liability.

For celebrities who work with the sponsors, only George Clooney, who appears in advertisements for Omega, so far has raised his voice.

TeamDarfur.org, in another initiative, is recruiting Olympic athletes to raise human rights awareness. The athletes, though, have not been asked to boycott the games. Belgium, New Zealand and the U.K. in turn announced that their athletes would be banned from speaking out. Following criticism of these gag orders, New Zealand and the U.K. reversed their positions, although Belgium has yet to do so.


The crackdown in Tibet is a repeat of the crackdown on protesting Burmese monks in Rangoon last September. China, which is the main supporter of the Burmese junta, the SPDC, is following the same playbook. A Burmese advocacy group, 88 Generation Students, has called for a boycott of the Olympics. The preeminent pro-democracy organization, the National League for Democracy, though, has not. This divergence is the same with the SPDC's upcoming constitutional referendum: 88 Generation Students is telling everyone to “Vote No,” while the elderly leaders of the NLD have yet to announce a formal position. (NLD Youth, though, are also calling for a "no" vote.) (Addendum: the NLD leadership later clarified their position and now support the Vote No effort.)

There is a split in Burma's pro-democracy movement, which is similar with the situation in Tibet. For Tibet, young activists want to aggressively protest for freedom (and do call for an Olympics boycott). The Dalai Lama, though, has unilaterally rejected independence, which raises the question, why even use the slogan, "Free Tibet"? The Dalai Lama has also expressed a willingness to meet Chinese dictator Hu Jintao.

For Burma, the leaders of the NLD have likewise stuck to a dialogue only strategy, even though it too is completely discredited.

When the 88 Generation Students announced their Olympics boycott, this was mentioned in the international press. Excepting this, though, Burma is almost never listed as an Olympics pressure issue. Burmese activists need to recreate the momentum generated last autumn, when demonstrations were held at Chinese embassies around the world. Every time there is an article about the Olympics, Burma - not only Tibet and Darfur - must be mentioned as well.

International Community

The basic position of China, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Community, is that the Olympics are not about politics. While this is true - in a sense - they are about sports, the Games can never be separated from certain political issues. According to the Olympic charter, the Olympics promote "a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." Therefore, if participants in the Olympics, and even worse - the host nation, engage in or support murderous repression, the people of the world, national olympics federations, and national and international leaders, must respond. In the face of such severe transgressions - and China is guilty of many - a boycott is appropriate.

Dictator Watch's position is that this year's Games should be cancelled.

IOC President Jacques Rogge says that we shouldn't pressure China. He is following the PLA and former IOC President Antonio Samaranch's party line. Similarly, others say that the proper venue to resolve these types of disputes is the United Nations. This too is true, but China is using its Security Council veto to stop all progress at the U.N. on human rights crises. China is effectively boycotting the Security Council. This is yet another reason why we must boycott China and the Games.

The other blockade at the Security Council, Russia, also fully supports China. Russia is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, but because of its behavior at home and abroad it too should be disqualified.

For the United States, President Bush has not taken a principled stance. Instead, he plans to attend the Games, even in the face of the Tibetan carnage. The U.S. just took China off its list of the world's worst human rights abusers. Secretary Rice says that the dialogue with China on human rights is "positive."


As far as the Administration is concerned, the principal issue with China is to promote trade. Defense and security issues are also important, but human rights are ignored. As the actions of India, Nepal and Belgium (which pepper-sprayed Tibetan demonstrators) illustrate, this policy is the norm.

Fortunately, some American lawmakers are pressuring China, including through an effort to deny government funding for Olympics visits. We call on all members of Congress to boycott the Games, and also for the presidential candidates to declare their positions on the Games and Tibet.

Reporters Without Borders has called for leaders to boycott the opening ceremonies. French Foreign Minister Kouchner threatened to do so, but then backtracked. He said: "obviously when you make economic decisions it is sometimes at the expense of human rights."

This too is hogwash. Human rights take precedence over commercial gain, in all circumstances.

French President Sarkozy, though, has said he may skip the opening ceremonies. Other European leaders are now considering their positions.

For the European public, a majority of the French people want a boycott of the opening ceremony. Some ninety percent of the Germans want an outright boycott of the Games, which the German Olympic Committee refuses to consider.


The efforts thus far have yet to have a significant impact. China’s intransigence is undiminished, and the politicians of the world are waffling. ("Since China has a blackout, even if they kill many more Tibetans, we won't have to acknowledge it.") The Olympics protests, though, are just beginning. Many dramatic events are likely, and this will drastically increase the pressure. The Games will be a public relations disaster, including for China, for international leaders who appease the dictatorship, and for the corporate sponsors. This is the greatest boon for activists for Tibet, Darfur and Burma in years, if not decades.

China is being called to account. The world, certainly the people of the world, will no longer accept its horrific status quo. China must change, by ending its repression in Tibet; by ending its support for the dictators of Sudan, Burma and elsewhere; and by ending its repression of its own 1.3 billion people.