China and the Olympics: a view from France

Patrice de Beer
7 August 2008

France, like every other country, is hoping for asmany medals as possible in the Beijing Olympics on 8-24 August 2008. And, likeany other country, it is also hoping that no unfortunate events will tar thesehard-won medals. At the same time, the French, who demonstrated more forcefullythan anybody else against abuse of human rights in China and Tibet when the Olympic torch was paradedin the streets of Paris, remain very ambivalent towards a communist regimewhich has retaliated with an informal boycott of France by travel agencies.

Among openDemocracy'sarticles on China in 2008:

Li Datong, "China's leaders, the media, andthe internet"(4 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: aglobalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China'sfix-it governance"(30 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "The Olympics countdown: Beijingto Shanghai"(7 August 2008)

Tarek Osman, "China and the Olympics: a viewfrom Egypt"(7 August 2008)

France was, in 1964, the first major western countryto open an embassy in Mao Zedong's China. While many May ‘68 demonstrators were mesmerised by the culturalrevolution, General Charles de Gaulle's information minister Alain Peyrefitte pontificated - in his bestselling book Quand la Chine s'éveillera..." (When China Awakes) - that the Chinese should not be judgedby western standards: democracy was not part of their culture and a communistdictatorship was good enough for them. Not much has changed since, and France remainssplit between realists and idealists.

Human-rights organisations like ReportersSans Frontières(RSF) have been at the forefront of protests. They didn't advocate boycottingthe Olympic games but suggested that if athletes should take part in the games,politicians should not - by their presence at the opening ceremony - give an oppressiveregime the blanket symbolic support it demanded from them. They also promisedto organise protests during the games. Some European leaders declined President Hu Jintao's pressure toattend, for good or less good reasons: Britain'sGordon Brown, Germany's Angela Merkel or Italy's Silvio Berlusconi amongthem.

France also has a powerful pro-China lobby, nowrepresented by rightwing former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. This group, supported by big business,advocates appeasement, warning that even the mildest criticism of China couldjeopardise "big contracts" and that human rights should be left to some kind ofhush-hush diplomacy which still has to prove its usefulness. Yet its membershave never been able to explain why Chinais doing three or four times more business with Germany- whose chancellor has not hidden her distaste of violation of human rights in Tibet - despite Pariskowtowing to Beijing.

Nicolas Sarkozy has tried not to choosebetween his conflicting images of being the "president of human rights" and theone who wants to bring more business, and more jobs, to a country facing aneconomic crisis. But, despite his promise to check thoughtfully the pros andcons on human rights before deciding whether to be in Beijing's Olympic stadiumat the opening ceremony on 8 August 2008, there was hardlyany doubt that he would in the end cave in.

Yet the problem remains that the more you giveaway to the Chinese leadership, the more they think they can continue withtheir bullying policy - towards their own countrymen and their foreign partners (see "The China fantasy", 15 June 2007). Why not have the courage to warn them, respectfully,that there are limits to hubris; and that the Olympics, even if they can be asource of pride and patriotism for the organising country, should never becomea show of national power and jingoism?

Daniel Vernet writes (Pourdes JO de Pékin ‘réussis', LeMonde [5 August 2008]):"The risk is not that these games be disorderly, but that they would be toomuch under control(...) They should also leave space for improvisation,spontaneity, imagination. Three words the Chinese communist leadership hates inpublic life". It should not be considered "anti-Chinese" to make such pointsand to pose hard questions to China'sleaders, at the Olympics or at any other time.

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