April 28, 2008 — Over the course of the last month, Chinese officials have engaged in a systematic campaign to purge dissent in Tibet. These actions are part of a long-term policy to assimilate Tibet into Han Chinese society. With the much anticipated 2008 Olympic Games a few months away, the international community and non-state actors have turned up the heat, demanding that Beijing engage in dialogue with the Dali Lama and stop repression of Tibetans and other minority groups, such as Uighurs. Heads of state have variously threatened and committed to boycotts of participation in the games' opening ceremony.
But those calling for the United States and the international community to boycott the 2008 Olympic Games don't understand that the international community has little leverage over China, given it's growing international influence. In addition, they don't seem to realize that boycotts are likely to make the situation in China worse, not better.
Beijing has become very apt at manipulating the Asia-Pacific environment by promoting virtually unconditional economic and foreign assistance to the region and engaging in a diplomatic "charm offensive" that is actively challenging the American-led "balance of influence." Witness the actions of India's Foreign Ministry, which recently issued a statement declaring "India does not permit Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India." This is perhaps an indication that China's regional currency is gaining value with one of its most skeptical neighbors. Thus, a boycott is unlikely to be joined by those that have the best chance of influencing Chinese behavior.
Some analysts opine that boycotting the opening ceremony would force China to reverse course and begin a gradual process of rapprochement with Tibetans and other minority groups. These commentators contend that China's path to prosperity and eventual great-power status consistently eschews the appearance of hostility in favor of being seen as a peaceful and benign power. This perspective -- rooted in Deng Xiaoping's strategy for how China should ascend -- is a widely held view among the Chinese elite. The logical implication of this perspective is that China will make major concessions on the Tibet issue out of fear of eroding its international standing and growing goodwill. But this perspective fails to take into account how much the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) values control over China's sovereignty and internal affairs. The government's existence is predicated on its being able to control its vast territory, including (most importantly) Taiwan. Government officials believe concessions on Tibet could open a Pandora's Box of excessive claims for self-determination and territory, which would inevitably erode the integrity of the CCP and the Chinese state.
A boycott would cause great embarrassment to the Chinese, butwould not result in more liberal behavior. China is not a car factory;it is one of the world's most significant economies and powers.Boycotts work when their targets are heavily reliant upon the supportof others (generally, employees) for their success. But China'scentrality to the global economy means they know the world is relianton their continued prosperity. The world has become extremely relianton China at every level, in particular its ability to produce cheapgoods. China has become the No. 1 trading partner of dozens ofcountries around the world and a driver for the global economy.
Other analysts contend that a continuous barrage of demarches and demands on Beijing will force the Chinese CCP to overreact. In fact, recent struggles between hardliners and reformers in Beijing seem to indicate that reformers are becoming even more influential. A "coalition of boycotters" is likely to give hardliners the fuel they need to retake the CCP and its ever-powerful bully pulpit through which it frames policies, national identity, and news. This could jeopardize the past decade of progress within the CCP -- including the moderation of jingoistic and hawkish views. A hardened Chinese government is less likely to cooperate on anything, let alone human rights. Moreover, brutal crackdowns and censorship would become more likely if the CCP believed that the embarrassment caused by an international boycott was caused by Tibetan monks or other religious minorities. Moreover, overreaction could also cross the threshold into miscalculation, whereby the CCP or military disproportionately responds to international criticism. This could include a more provocative military strategy meant to deter and dissuade perceived threats to the mainland's sovereign integrity.
In addition to potential political consequences, if China's behavior is not tempered by engagement its economic activity has the potential to do great damage. China is now one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world, and its demand for carbon-based fuels will continue to grow exponentially in the years ahead. Even if the U.S. were to drastically cut back its carbon emissions, within a matter of years China's growth-driven emissions would overtake any American-led progress. Moreover, China's track record as a proliferator of weapons -- from machetes and guns sold to Rwanda and Zimbabwe to the sharing of nuclear technology with Pakistan -- continues to recalibrate regional balances of power in destabilizing ways. It is unlikely that the international community could manage these challenges without engagement and strong relations with China.
Unfortunately, the optimism leading up to Beijing being awarded the 2008 Olympic Games deluded the judgment of the international community, and it still does so today. Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, states that "The Olympic Games have so far failed to act as a catalyst for reform. Unless urgent steps are taken to redress the situation, a positive human rights legacy for the Beijing Olympics looks increasingly beyond reach." China-watchers have been skeptical of this possibility from the outset -- not because they are inherently cynical or pessimistic, but because they understand that the government's desire to remain omnipotent is mutually exclusive with respecting people's rights. Regardless of whether or not countries decide to boycott the 2008 games, one thing is clear: Beijing will not respond positively to threats. The best course of action is to encourage reformers to promote more liberal policies, and to persuade them that democratic governance promotes stability, and is in Beijing's long-term interest.
Nirav Patel is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He specializes in Asian affairs.