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China and the Olympics: a view from Pakistan

Irfan Husain
8 August 2008

If the vast majority of Chinese people resentwestern carping about alleged human rights violations on the eve of theOlympics, this sentiment is widely shared across the third world. In Pakistan, China is seen as a tried and testedfriend in an increasingly hostile world. Thus, when the Olympic flame arrived in Islamabadon its journey around the world, it was widely welcomed and cheered. Not asingle political party dared use the occasion to demonstrate, despite thehighly charged atmosphere in the country.

Other articles by Irfan Husain:

"Pakistan: the election and after" (10 December 2007)

"Benazir Bhutto: the politics ofmurder" (28 December2007)

"Pakistan: a post-electionscenario" (11 January 2008)

"Pakistan's critical moment" (11 February 2008)

"Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)

Although Pakistanis increasingly polarised between Islamists and moderates, both groups supportits close links with China. Oddly, its officialatheistic stance does not figure as a factor with most orthodox Pakistanis.Only a few extremist groups support the separatist, Islamic militants among theUighurs of western Chinaaround Kashgar, the scene of the terrorist attack on 4 August that left sixteen Chinesepolicemen dead.

In a world increasingly divided between "us"and "them", Pakistanis across the spectrum see China as one of "us". By and large,Chinais perceived as an Asian state standing up to western bullies, and trying tothwart their designs against developing countries. Human-rights charges laid at Beijing'sdoor are widely dismissed, especially after the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whenever I raise therecent crackdown in Tibet,my Pakistani friends indignantly ask: "But what about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay? What about the hundreds of thousands of deadIraqi and Afghan civilians?" The sad truth is that by seen to be tramplingroughshod over (Muslim) human rights after 9/11, Washington and London havelost the moral high ground, at least in much of the Islamic world.

For my own part, I must confess a fair amountof ambivalence in my views about China. On the one hand, itscommunist dictators have been guilty of grotesque crimes against their ownpeople. On the other, they have lifted hundreds of millions of peasants out ofpoverty, illiteracy and despondency. And for those who have grown up indeveloping countries, grinding poverty is the worst human-rights violation ofthem all. If Chinais doing so well now, its resurgence has been made possible bythe tremendous efforts made in developing the human potential after therevolution. Those who say a capitalist system could have achieved the sameresults have only to survey the state of most countries in the globalsouth.

Among openDemocracy'sarticles on China in2008:

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

Patrice de Beer, "China and the Olympics: a viewfrom France"(7 August 2008)
Many western friends say the Olympics shouldnever have been awarded to China,given its human rights record. But if the gamesare to become a badge for good behaviour, then they will be restricted to ahandful of countries, and lose their international appeal and flavour. The factis that improvements in human rights as well as political reforms are gradual, and to expect an overnight transformation isunrealistic.

When Chinese fans cheer for their athletesduring the next few weeks, they will be glad to know that hundreds of millionsof people from across the global south will be cheering with them. And for whatit's worth, so will I.

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